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Why your Rokus and Fire TVs are missing those big, new streaming apps

Device makers and streaming services are battling each other over money and control -- and they're sticking you in the middle.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Joan E. Solsman
3 min read
Roku vs Amazon Fire TV

Roku and Amazon Fire TV dominate the market for streaming devices in the US. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku still doesn't have HBO Max's streaming app. Peacock streams free shows and movies but not on Amazon Fire TV. And T-Mobile just rolled out its own live-channel streaming service, TVision -- but Roku users, again, are out of luck. 

These gaps in app support used to be rare on streaming devices. This year, they've cropped up with nearly every launch of a big, new streaming service. Why?

Streaming has grown more popular than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, amplifying a long trend of people watching more video over the internet. Now the most powerful TV app distributors and deep-pocketed media companies are drawing their battle lines. Both sides want more control of the data, money and programming at the heart of your streaming activity, aiming to entrench themselves in positions of power for the next era of television.

Unfortunately, that leaves you stuck in the middle with missing streaming options.

Neither Roku nor Amazon responded to messages seeking comment. 

When you go to the store and buy an electronic device, whether it's a TV or a blender or a Roku, the consumer's perspective is "I own it," said Andrew McCollum, CEO of Philo, a skinny-bundle streaming service for entertainment channels. "It's not just that you have ownership of the device; device makers also feel they have some ownership over you."

Most people assume all the big streaming services will be at the ready to download and watch on their streaming device. And up until this year, that was fairly true. People who bought a Roku or an Amazon Fire TV could generally count on the most popular streaming apps to be there. That wide app support is one of the reasons Roku and Fire TV have come to dominate the market for streaming devices and smart TVs. Together, the two companies made up 70% of all the streaming devices installed in the US last year, according to Parks Associates. 

But that wide app app support also created a perception of how easy it must be for services to put their apps on devices like Rokus and Fire TVs. 

In reality, app support is the result of complicated negotiations between the device maker and the streaming service. 

Why can't I stream this on that?

To average people who just want to stream what they want on their device, the terms these companies haggle over are a winning combination: complicated and very boring.  

Device makers may require new apps and services to make (or continue) commitments like:

  • Agreeing to license programming for the device makers' own streaming channels, like Roku Channel and IMDb TV
  • Committing to spend a certain amount of money on marketing on the device platform -- for example, this could include payments to give an app preferred placement on the device's menu. 
  • Requiring a service's subscription be sold in the device's online channel or app store and sharing some of the subscription revenue when a new member signs up and pays through the device's platform.
  • Sharing advertising inventory in the service 

The device maker may not seek out all of these obligations for every service, it may seek out others, and the commitments it digs in its heels to get may vary. On the flip side, every service has its own idea of what's a dealbreaker. That's why app support is evolving into a patchwork of missing services. There's no single issue that's suddenly messing everything up. 

Carriage disputes between programmers and distributors are nothing new. They're a routine annoyance for customers of traditional cable and satellite TV. Up until this year, these kinds of "blackouts" were one of ways streaming distinguished itself from the aggravations of television's past. 

But now the stakes are higher. Dominating streaming could mean the difference between ruling as a media monolith or fading into irrelevance. So far, companies on both sides are willing to run the risk of frustrating you to protect their own interests. 

It remains to be seen what price any of these companies pay for exasperating customers like you, but in the meantime, you're the one paying the price.