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Why streaming devices and streaming networks are fighting over your eyeballs

Streaming TV should be easy, but fights among Roku, Amazon, HBO, and NBC are making it hard.

Two people standing in front of a display of flat-screen TVs in a big-box store.
TV shoppers at a Best Buy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2018.
Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

When Wonder Woman 1984 opens in theaters on Christmas Day, most HBO Max subscribers will be able to watch the movie at home. Emphasis on most: Right now, that group of HBO Max subscribers does not include those who use a Roku device to watch streaming TV.

This is because Roku, which dominates the US market for streaming devices, and AT&T’s WarnerMedia, which owns HBO Max, don’t have a deal to put the new service on Roku’s streaming boxes, sticks, and TVs. If the two companies don’t get a deal done soon, it’s unlikely they’ll have anything in place for the holiday season, according to people who work at both companies.

Call it the collateral damage of the streaming wars, which bring you an enormous amount of choice about what you can watch and where you can watch it — but also require you to make sure the device and streaming service you want to use are playing together nicely.

So on the one hand, you can now pick and choose between streaming TV packages that have just about everything or “skinny bundles” that leave out things like sports; you can also sign up for services like Disney+ because you want to see The Mandalorian and then easily unsubscribe when you’re done. On the other hand, you can’t watch Peacock, Comcast’s new streaming service, on Amazon’s Fire TV, or Apple TV+ on Google devices — at least without doing some work beyond pointing and clicking.

It’s not like the old days of cable TV when programmers and distributors also fought periodically — they never asked you to figure out whether your TV set worked with their cable box. Instead, both sides are looking at it as a way to set new terms: Who controls the way streaming video gets to you? How does the money you spend on that video get split up? What about the money advertisers spend trying to reach you?

Because all of this is new — and because everyone thinks it’s going to change a lot in the coming years — you’re probably going to see these kinds of scrimmages happening periodically. Even if Roku and HBO Max come to terms in the near future, that deal likely won’t be a long-term one, which means they could end up in a fight again in a year or two.

There are a lot of people caught in the middle of these skirmishes, too. HBO Max, for instance, has around 9 million users; Roku has 46 million users, giving it an estimated 30 percent of the streaming device market.

If it’s any consolation for frustrated HBO Max subscribers, they’re not alone. As of right now, anyone who wants to watch Peacock can’t watch it on Amazon devices. That’s a big group of people: Peacock has at least 15 million subscribers, and Amazon’s Fire ecosystem is the second-most-popular streaming tech in the US.

Peacock is trying to work out a deal with Amazon, and maybe that will happen before the holidays, too. These things are moving targets: Peacock, which launched last spring, didn’t get a deal to land on Roku devices until September. HBO Max, which launched in May, didn’t get an Amazon deal until mid-November.

Even if your streaming plans aren’t going to be interrupted by these two fights, it’s worth understanding the backstory to them. They’re fundamentally about money, of course. But the variations in them shine some light on the way the companies plan to make money from you, the viewer.

In the case of Comcast’s Peacock and Amazon, the main sticking point seems to be over who will have direct contact with the viewer, as well as access to their viewing habits and other valuable data. (Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this site.)

In the past, Amazon has been able to sell access to HBO and other streaming services via its “channels” offering in its Prime Video hub — which meant Amazon controlled billing and every other point of contact with the programmers’ customers.

But increasingly, programmers want to wrest that control back. They want to distribute their own apps on Amazon’s Fire TV app store. They’re also okay with giving Amazon a cut of the revenue they make from subscriptions, but they want a direct line to their viewer.

You can see how this played out with the new deal that WarnerMedia and Amazon struck to get HBO Max onto Amazon devices. While neither company is commenting publicly about the terms, people familiar with the negotiations say the deal essentially unwinds a previous agreement that had allowed Amazon to sell HBO subscriptions itself. Instead, WarnerMedia will use its own HBO Max app, which is available on the Amazon Fire TV app store. The distinction shouldn’t matter much to you, the person who wants to stream the new season of Succession. It mattered enough to Amazon and WarnerMedia to fight about it for months.

When it comes to HBO Max and Roku, it’s a little harder to parse the dispute. People I’ve talked to on both sides seem frustrated. But the main negotiating points that Roku has with partners are well-known: Roku wants a slice of every subscription dollar consumers spend on its platform; it wants the ability to sell advertising on ad-supported services on its platform, and in some cases, it wants shows or movies from programmers that it can stream on its own Roku-branded service. (As part of its new deal with Comcast, for instance, Roku gets to run the media company’s NBC News Now show live on its free Roku channel.)

Industry officials say that Roku, which has seen a steady rise in users over the past few years, has been increasingly aggressive about the terms it asks for. Scott Rosenberg, a senior vice president who handles programming deals for Roku, says that’s not the case. He says that companies that work with Roku benefit because Roku benefits when they do well.

“Partners who have a growth mindset, who embrace the opportunity, see enormous growth,” Rosenberg told me. The old cable TV distributors, he says, “were toll-takers” who made the same amount of money regardless of what you watched. “They weren’t particularly incented to drive [a programmer’s] success.”

Roku and Amazon dominate streaming TV, but they’re not the only ones that end up in disputes. You can get to Netflix on Apple’s Apple TV box, for instance, but not on Apple’s Apple TV app because Netflix doesn’t want Apple to have access to its data or its customers. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings put it in 2019: “Apple’s a great company. We want to have people watch our shows on our services.” Apple, meanwhile, doesn’t have its Apple TV app available on most devices running Google’s Android software.

There’s a flip side of all of this: You can argue, with a straight face, that TV is better than it’s ever been. In the old days, you were unlikely to lose the channels you loved to a dispute between programmers and distributors — but you didn’t have any choice about the channels you paid for. Now you do, and that’s great.

And just because a programmer and a TV distributor are at odds doesn’t mean you’re completely out of luck. It just means you need to investigate workarounds, which can range from watching on your laptop to streaming a show on your phone and casting it to your TV to buying an extra gadget that is compatible with the programmer you want and plugging that into your TV.

Which is what I do, with an older Apple TV box, so we can watch HBO Max on our Roku TV. It’s not ideal. But it will let us watch Wonder Woman.