Already a member? Log In

Roku’s “Lord of the Rings” Strategy

Roku chief Charlie Collier and Puck’s Matt Belloni in conversation at NeueHouse in New York. Photo: Karen Obrist Photography
The Editors
May 20, 2024

Last Tuesday, Roku partnered with Puck during upfront week for a night of cocktails and conversation at NeueHouse in New York. The special event, attended by a number of media industry heavyweights, was invite-only for Puck subscribers, but the conversation between Puck’s Matt Belloni and Roku chief Charlie Collier, thankfully, was entirely on the record. 

In a rollicking, wide-ranging conversation, the two discussed Roku’s originals strategy, why Collier partnered with the MLB, the art and science of bundling streamers, how getting Lord of the Rings supercharges viewership, and much, much more. Their conversation has been transcribed and lightly edited for clarity.

Matthew Belloni: So why Roku? You had a great job at Fox. The company was doing well. You kind of reinvented what it meant to be a broadcast network for Fox, and then one day I get a call from someone saying, “Oh, he went to Roku.”

Charlie Collier: I had a great job at Fox, I loved it. What you realize sitting in that chair is that in the world of fragmentation, I could go and sell my favorite show to fill-in-the-blank. Then you realize, with platforms being so powerful, that the platform is always going to be bigger than the pieces that rest on the platform. It’s also going to have scale regardless of whatever show is up or down. And so, we bought a company called Tubi when we were at Fox, we made six or seven acquisitions. Again, it was a great time.

That was a good one.

What’s remarkable is how much of the audience is driven through the front door that is Roku. There’s an opportunity to really bring the industry and advertisers great value because, and this is going to sound like upfront, we have 82 million active accounts, these are logged-on relationships. And then you’ve got 120-plus million people coming through your front door every day, that’s Super Bowl size.

That number is insane.

It’s crazy.

Half of the people who access connected televisions connect through Roku.

Because my I.R. guy is here, it’s nearly half. If three or four more people came in, we’d be there, but nearly half the broadband households come through our front door. Having gone to AMC, you nurture great creatives and then you find their passion project, and that’s great, and that’s one show at a time. And then you get here and you realize, “Oh my goodness, we have that many logged-on relationships and we can serve them.”

Even though you do originals, you don’t really have to play favorites. I mean, your whole presentation at the upfronts was, “We are the lead-in to whatever you’re watching.”

Right. To be the lead-in to all of television is a really massive notion. When we started the upfront, Archie Bunker’s chair was onstage. We said, “All right, 50 years ago today, the number one show in television was All in the Family, and something like a third of the American population watched it every night.” They spun off The Jeffersons, and lo and behold, they program it behind All in the Family, and 48 million people come to this new show. And that’s what linear television was. You got the NFL, you put a big show behind it, and it becomes the number one show in television. Well, the lead-ins are gone. 

Well, sports.

Well, that’s right. And there’s not a show in [the] 18-to-49 [demographic] that does above a 1.0 rating in the country right now, right? That’s crazy.

Yellowstone when it’s on. But that’s only once every two years.

It’s a really different world. So you think, “What is the power of a lead-in, and what is the power of scale, and how do you drive the type of momentum?” The answer is, you have to do it at a platform level. And so, Roku has some capabilities to be in the media business that I think we’re really just in the early innings of exploring. 

In a fragmented universe, the platform is the hit.

It’s the lead-in. And look, if you have 120 million people coming through your front door, think about the power of advertising. There’s the top of the funnel, which is broad reach. We got that in spades. And there’s the bottom of the funnel, which is really specific, and we have that too, because these are all logged-on relationships.

Obviously, the downside of the platform is the platform can be disrupted by bigger platforms, and you’ve got competitors that are attached to majorly bigger companies like Amazon.

Look, everyone’s got competitors, there’s no doubt about it. I was not here when Anthony Wood founded the company, but I’m quite certain that people have been telling him how soon he’ll be shut down for all of his success. I mean, to have 82 million active accounts, we have a pretty good base.

The stock goes up and down based on whoever says, “Someone’s coming for you guys.”

It’s an amazing company with a lot of upside. And I look at the relationship we have with the viewer and the scale that we’ve accumulated. And the fact that you’ve got a lot of companies, our competitors, many of them who are closed ecosystems. So if we can be at scale and interoperable—we announced a big deal with The Trade Desk and iSpot—and be open in different ways, I think there’s a huge opportunity for us.

It gets to the originals question, because one thing that you didn’t do in your upfront is what Amazon did today, which was…

Make people wait 45 minutes?

Not me, I went right around that line. But it was a fire hose of stars. I mean, they just threw everything they had at this first upfront. Reese Witherspoon, Will Ferrell, the Reacher people. I mean, everybody was there. You have originals, so what’s the originals strategy?

I think Amazon’s awesome and Mike Hopkins is a friend and they do a really good job. But there are millions of people who will come through our front door, see advertising on Roku and on whatever day, not get to Amazon or not see Amazon advertising. As an original programmer, you’re absolutely right, I will not spend $20 billion. That’s just not the game we’re in. But what I like…

Lord of the Rings?

We’ll have Lord of the Rings on our platform, and if you want to get there, my bet is that if you’re targeting the viewer of Lord of the Rings, we can help them get people there because we’re really good at getting people to content. And often they buy our home screen so it’s immersive. We love it when big shows come back, because we probably send more people to those shows than anyone else. 

But a perfect example, just to take it away from a big title, we had on our stage The Great American Baking show cast. So you got Prue and Paul and our American hosts. We will curate a show like that next to every cooking show ever made. Our “All Things Food” is a perfect incarnation of what I think a platform can do well. We also have a sports destination that is awesome, but we also have the logos of Major League Baseball and the NFL, and we have a Women’s Sports Zone.

If you have access to all of that sports content, why do the baseball thing? You just did a deal to take over the Sunday morning package of MLB games.

Well, we say we’re the lead-in to all of television, so if there was a lead-off package, we’re like, “We should have it.” It’s good to have the games, and it’s good to be in that business.

I hope you didn’t pay $30 million.

No, I paid cash myself! Look, it’s exciting to have the games. What’s equally exciting is the way we’ll organize Major League Baseball in the MLB Zone. It’ll have highlights, and it’ll tell you, based on what service you watch your television on, how to get it and then curate baseball for you. And then we’ll have a Roku-only FAST channel for MLB and all sorts of other ways to watch. If you’re a baseball fan, it’s going to be the best place to watch baseball. 

It’s funny because what you’re talking about sounds like a bundle almost, and I know that word gets thrown around a lot…

I would say it sounds like a service. When I turn on Roku and it’s serving content that I wasn’t looking for, and it’s simple and delightful—that, to me, is simplifying a really complicated landscape. And by the way, bundles are meant to do that. The Caitlin Clark games are coming, and they’ll be on our FAST channel on Ion, and I guarantee you that there’ll be enough people coming through the Women’s Sports Zone to make that a big deal.

People don’t know what Ion is.

Well, that’s the point.

They just know that their Roku will send them there.

We’ll help get them where they want to go. The fragmentation across the landscape is staggering, the packages have all been split up, so to find what you want, when you want it, is a really big service. And to do it delightfully and with some personality and with some lead-ins that you weren’t expecting, I think that’s really a huge opportunity for us.

The reason I mentioned bundles is just because we’ve seen some bundling news this week. Today, Comcast announced that for their broadband subscribers, they’re going to bundle Peacock, Netflix, and Apple TV+, although it’s the ad tier of Netflix only…

It’s interesting to see Netflix in a bundle.

Very interesting. No price revealed. We know that Disney+ and Hulu and Max are going to be bundled as of the summer. Again, no price revealed yet, but that is all of the versions, ads and no ads. Is this where we’re going to be in two years, where everything’s bundled? Is it all leading up to everybody climbing on each other into one big bundle?

Look, it’s really complicated and obviously, as a rights owner, it’s really fragmented and churn is hard to manage, which suggests the direction we’re going is certainly surprising. One of the reasons we are held in such good stead is because we have the scale to create scale for others.

You have what Netflix wants. They’re doing live, they’re doing sports, they’re doing all this stuff to gain scale for advertising.

I’ve said this in a lot of places, if you are driving engagement, we are a phenomenal partner. And being slightly agnostic to the product, and saying, “We want our viewers to find everything on this platform,” is a really good position. Because especially in ad-supported television, this is a fight for scale. And we’re proudly ad-supported, and we drive engagement as well as anybody.

Well, that’s why I would assume some of your biggest advertisers are your partners.

Absolutely. And we’ve been diversifying in so many different ways because, look, this is relatively early innings for everybody. We’re really good at what we call M&E, media and entertainment. And we’re building more and more ways to take what were traditional M&E placements and build them into non-endemic advertisers. We have a video ad on what we call our marquee unit on the home screen. It’s a really powerful unit, and the reach of that is, let’s say 82 million homes, call it over 120 million people. You start there and then you start targeting.

How do you decide what originals are right for Roku? Didn’t you guys do the “Weird Al” movie?

When interest rates were lower and while streaming was booming, you could do a lot. When we make originals, try to curate originals that will be elevated by this curation. And it gives you both the opportunity to be really disciplined and the opportunity to take bets that you can elevate. So we just did Spiderwick Chronicles, which is a big show starring Christian Slater at Disney+ that, during the strikes and the fallout and the cross-cutting, was a really good show. We had looked at our research and wondered, “Could we elevate something that was family and teen and had big I.P.?” And the answer was, of course we could. So we used the power of the platform to elevate it, and it became bigger than Weird, which is amazing because that was a one-off. 

What’s your most popular show?

Well, what’s interesting is we have different ways to answer that. I know that sounds crazy. We have some syndicated properties. I’m going to try to think of something you wouldn’t guess. Actually, anything Chuck Lorre ever does.

What is a surprising show or movie that does well for you guys?

Look, in a lot of cases we will send more people to whatever the Emmy-winning show is than the network or streamer itself. Every hit that’s a hit on television could not be a hit without Roku. If you think about half the broadband households coming through the front door, how are you going to do that without them? That’s the reason why we’re partnered with the Olympics, because if you want to find water polo, you have a far better shot doing it through our curation of it, and the same is true for the return of Morning Show or Stranger Things or the biggest broadcast hit. If you were a programmer who used to make your own things, now you get to make your own things and put them next to the things you love. It’s a great partnership opportunity for us, and it’s a great opportunity for them because we build their business.

It helps the number one thing people complain about, which is, “I can’t find anything to watch.”

That’s it. You would be amazed at how many people find the biggest sporting events through our curation of the Sports Zone. We make it easy. And we have a little bit of the best of everything. It’s really both a programming job and a curation job. It’s both a broad-reach job and it’s a specificity-of-targeting job. And even the way we monetize gives us options because of our breadth, it’s pretty great.

I asked you this before and you had a good answer, but what scares you about your business and the overall TV business? That’s our final question here.

That’s a good question. About our business, I wish I didn’t have to explain what a platform was. And I guess it’s not a fear, but it would be really awesome to be able to do an apples-to-apples comparison of the power of each platform to serve the people, the viewer, the partner, the affiliate. We can do that really well. But I wish it was ubiquitous and understood. 

For the business, it’s fragmentation. I mean again, we joke, “Oh, there’s nothing doing a 1.0 rating.” That is not great. But one of the reasons I love doing what we do is that we nurture artists, and some of my best friends in the world are people we built shows with, because it’s really hard to succeed. We should be able to tell great stories and have a great business, and obviously, you’re seeing a lot of people stuck in the mushy middle, and that’s a little scary.