Roku Is Small But Mighty in Streaming Wars

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- You’ve heard a lot about video streaming lately. Chances are you probably do a fair amount of it as well—whether on Netflix, Hulu, HBO or some other app. But there’s one company at the center of our binge-watching, cable-cord-cutting culture whose name tends to get lost in the mix, and that’s Roku Inc. It is small but mighty. 

Viewers streamed more than five billion hours of TV and movies in the second quarter, enough to watch all the “Star Wars” films to date 245 million times. Roku took the largest share of those viewing hours among all connected-TV platforms, mobile devices and computers, according to a report by Conviva, which measures streaming audiences:

Roku Is Small But Mighty in Streaming Wars

Conviva also found that Roku had more video plays—the number of times a user successfully starts a stream through its platform—than Sony Corp.’s PlayStation, Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox, Amazon.com Inc.’s Fire TV, Apple Inc.’s Apple TV and Alphabet Inc.’s Chromecast. And users tend to stream for longer on Roku than any other platform, with an average of 51 minutes per session, versus 33 minutes on Fire TV, the next highest.

Roku’s device players and TVs give users access to an operating system where they can add and watch various free and paid streaming apps, or channels as Roku calls them, such as Netflix. One in four smart TVs in the first half of the year were licensed Roku TVs, according to the company.

When Roku went public last September, the question was whether it could continue to thrive surrounded by such deep-pocketed tech giants and evolve from a low-margin gadget maker. There are still plenty of doubters: About 22 percent of the stock’s float is sold short, according to financial analytics firm S3 Partners. But Roku’s second-quarter earnings on Wednesday show that it’s doing all the right things. 

Revenue beat expectations as platform revenue—or non-hardware sales—nearly doubled, driven by advertising, and active accounts climbed 46 percent to 22 million. The Roku Channel, which aggregates free content, became one of the platform’s top five destinations, a draw for advertisers. Remember, traditional TV ad spending in the U.S. dropped last year for the first time since the last recession and isn’t expected to recover. That’s a challenge for TV networks that get a chunk of their profits from ads and need to chase the money shifting to over-the-top TV platforms such as this. 

Roku Is Small But Mighty in Streaming Wars

Roku forecast $710 million to $730 million of total revenue for the year, topping analysts’ average estimate. It’s also reportedly working to launch its own version of Amazon Channels, a marketplace that makes it easier for users to subscribe to streaming services right through Roku without having to download individual apps or go to separate websites to sign up for them. 

Roku Is Small But Mighty in Streaming Wars

Shares of Roku were up more than 10 percent in early trading Thursday, giving it a market value of about $5 billion. Investors clearly like what they see. But maintaining its share of the streaming market won’t be easy—the Fire TV stick was the top-selling item on Amazon’s Prime Day last month, and Apple is also mimicking Amazon’s strategy to simplify the app discovery and subscription process. 

Still, Roku is holding its own and proving an important vehicle to migrate more viewers to streaming and connect them with advertisers. And isn’t it nice to root for a company other than Amazon for a change?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., media and telecommunications. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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