Roku warned us on Monday that this could happen. This morning, the company announced that YouTube TV is no longer available on the Roku Channel Store. Google and Roku are squabbling over Roku’s carrying agreement, just like you might see in an old-school cable TV carriage dispute. The main point of contention seems to be over the AV1 video codec, a new, more efficient video standard that seems poised to be the new standard going forward.
With the two companies unable to come to an agreement, Roku says the YouTube TV app—an app for a $65-per-month service that delivers 85+ live cable TV channels over the Internet, not the normal YouTube app—has been pulled from the Roku channel store. Existing users will continue to be able to use the YouTube TV app on their Roku devices, but new users won’t be able to sign up. Here is Roku’s full statement:
We are disappointed that Google has allowed our agreement for the distribution of YouTube TV to expire. Roku has not asked for one dollar of additional financial consideration from Google to renew YouTube TV.
We have only asked Google for four simple commitments. First, not to manipulate consumer search results. Second, not to require access to data not available to anyone else. Third, not to leverage their YouTube monopoly to force Roku to accept hardware requirements that would increase consumer costs. Fourth, not to act in a discriminatory and anticompetitive manner against Roku.
Because our contract has expired, we have removed YouTube TV from our channel store. To continue to provide our users with a great streaming experience, we are taking the extra step to continue to offer existing subscribers access to YouTube TV on the Roku platform unless Google takes actions that require the full removal of the channel. Because of Google’s conduct, new subscriptions will not be available going forward until an agreement is reached.
It is well past time for Google to embrace the principles that have made streaming so popular for millions of users by giving consumers control of their streaming experience, by embracing fair competition and by ceasing anticompetitive practices. We believe consumers stand to benefit from Google and Roku reaching a fair agreement that preserves these principles and we remain committed to trying to achieve that goal.
Today, Google published a blog post in response, saying, “Despite our best efforts to come to an agreement in the best interests of our mutual users, Roku terminated our deal in bad faith amidst our negotiation. Unfortunately, Roku has often engaged in this tactic with other streaming providers.” Google flatly denied Roku’s claims that Google wanted user data and wanted to manipulate search, saying, “To be clear, we have never, as they have alleged, made any requests to access user data or interfere with search results. This claim is baseless and false.”
The 411 on AV1
While these negotiations were supposed to be about the $65-per-month cable TV replacement service YouTube TV, Google says Roku “chose to use this as an opportunity to renegotiate a separate deal encompassing the YouTube main app, which does not expire until December.”
The statements from Google and Roku seem to dance around the issue of AV1 video codec support, which an earlier report from Protocol revealed is at the core of this dispute. Roku says that Google was trying to “leverage their YouTube monopoly to force Roku to accept hardware requirements that would increase consumer costs,” while Google says that “[o]ur agreements with partners have technical requirements to ensure a high quality experience on YouTube.”
Google continues, saying, “Roku requested exceptions that would break the YouTube experience and limit our ability to update YouTube in order to fix issues or add new features. For example, by not supporting open source video codecs, you wouldn’t be able to watch YouTube in 4K HDR or 8K even if you bought a Roku device that supports that resolution.” It’s not clear why no one can write the letters “AV1” in a blog post, but this statement is definitely about the upcoming video codec.
AV1 is the successor to Google’s VP8 and VP9 video codecs, and development has moved from being an in-house Google project to an industry-backed “Alliance for Open Media.” AV1’s bandwidth-saving potential and royalty-free license have earned it backing from nearly every big video and hardware company, including Google, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft, Samsung, Intel, Facebook, Arm, Hulu, and a ton of other companies. Like all advanced video codecs, AV1 requires hardware decode support for playback on slower devices like streaming sticks, set-top boxes, and phones, hence all the allusions to “hardware” and “technical” requirements. Google has been pushing manufacturers to pack in these brand-new, more expensive SoCs so that it can roll out AV1 support to a wide audience.
Google is very enthusiastic about AV1. Bandwidth is a major cost of running YouTube, and anything that results in Google sending less data to play a video can save the company tons of cash. Google is so aggressive about switching to AV1 that it created its own video transcoding chip to make the work of re-encoding YouTube’s massive video collection over to AV1 easier.
Despite Google’s internal zeal for AV1, when it comes to streaming hardware, Roku is actually doing a better job supporting AV1 than Google. The official scoreboard shows that Roku has one AV1-compatible device, the $100 Roku Ultra, while Google sells zero AV1 streaming devices. Google’s newest, most expensive dongle, the $50 Chromecast with Google TV, does not have a chip that supports AV1. Google has made AV1 support mandatory for Android TV devices, but again, those are other companies’ devices. Google should be leading by example here, but it isn’t.
No one has been able to get AV1 working on an inexpensive streaming box, and Roku’s $100 Ultra is about the cheapest AV1 streaming box on the market. Roku goes way more down-market than that, though, and it does not seem like the company could offer the Roku Express at the current $29.99 MSRP if it had AV1 support.
While the two companies aren’t seeing eye to eye on the AV1 codec, Google says this doesn’t have to result in the immediate takedown of YouTube TV. The company says, “Our offer to Roku was simple and still stands: renew the YouTube TV deal under the existing reasonable terms.”