Cable TV, a staple of American homes for nearly forty years, is under attack. A new generation of streaming services, and the devices that serve them, is here to offer viewers more choice for less money, as well as near-endless customization. One of the leaders in this field is Roku and their series of boxes. Roku is a small hardware box, or USB dongle, that attaches to a television to provide streaming TV services. Here’s five reasons why the Roku crushes cable.
Roku Does One Thing, and It Does It Well
Adding a Roku to a television instantly allows access to dozens of streaming services. Streaming services need something to stream through, and Roku offers that portal—to literally dozens of streaming companies. Roku’s hardware provides a small, thoughtful, inobtrusive hardware solution for streaming. Roku designs the box, remote control, and the user interface, sells the boxes cheaply, and allows streaming services to create apps for its devices.
The other two parties in the transaction, consumers and streaming providers, take it from there. Unlike cable companies, Roku does not negotiate licensing, buy bandwidth, manage customer accounts, and produce its own content. Roku leaves that up to someone else. All Roku does is build a streaming box and user interface, and sell their equipment cheaply enough that their purchase becomes a no-brainer. Roku may not be part of the invasion force landing on cable’s shores, but it does provide the boats to land on the beaches.
One of the most aggravating things about cable television is the inability to block the content you don’t want. Cable companies brag about offering hundreds of different channels to consumers, but the problem is that the average consumer actually watches very few of them. Consumers are forced to surf past scores of channels just to get to the ones they actually watched, all in the name of a “better user experience.”
The Roku is much more customizable than cable, allowing users to basically do whatever they want with the boxes. Users can install apps to watch other streaming channels, paying only for what they want to see. Some services, such as YouTubeTV, take it even further by allowing subscribers to block channels they don’t watch. Don’t want to watch CNN? Block it. After decades of surfing past obscure channels and other irrelevant content, it’s a relief to see a selection of TV networks that only interest me.
A Wide Selection of Streaming Services
A Roku box is merely a hardware device that allows consumers to access streaming services. While Roku maintains its own streaming service, the box also allows users to access YouTubeTV, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Apple TV+, and of course Netflix—not to mention literally dozens of smaller apps. Roku neither competes with streaming companies nor against any one of them. Roku itself is app agnostic. Roku is only interested in selling consumers their hardware—and making it as open to streamers as possible, ensuring that consumers will steadily upgrade their boxes.
Roku has succeeded in becoming the dominant streaming platform in large part because its hardware is so cheap it’s practically an impulse buy. Today the company offers four Roku Players, ranging in prices from $29.99 to $79.99. That’s considerably cheaper than the price of buying or leasing a cable box—a piece of hardware that locks you into the cable company’s services.
Roku priced their players from the outset to move and capture market share, and today the company is the dominant player in streaming hardware. The cheapest player costs the equivalent of three movie tickets but opens the user up to a world of competing streaming services.
The cable television industry had made itself plenty of enemies over the years, most notably their own customer base. Cable companies have built up a large reservoir of ill will, with consumer complaints including poor service, rising prices, and hidden fees. In 2018 Comcast, one of the largest providers nationwide, earned the top spot on a list of the most hated companies in America. Other cable companies were not far behind.
Cable television’s years of captive and even downright predatory billing practices led to a situation where consumers would eagerly scramble to try something new. And they did, buying Roku boxes in droves, even as cable scrambled to implement its own streaming service. The cable industry itself was ripe for disruption, and streaming services quickly gained market share at cable’s expense.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.