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What Next For Roku After Record Week And Quibi Deal?

Roku last week had one of the all-time great runs a company has ever had, with record numbers announced in key metrics, record share prices, its first venture into original content, and a notable upgrade from a major analyst. Phew! Nice way to start the new year. Okay, so now what?

Where, in fact does an independent company that’s functioned mostly as a “Switzerland” hosting the content of just about all comers go next? It faces competition in every part of its business from many of the world’s biggest tech and entertainment companies, even as parts of its business are often those companies’ partners.

With the U.S. market nearly saturated, what are Roku’s growth prospects internationally? And can it afford to get into the content-acquisition spending wars?

“The world is moving to streaming and we look forward to continuing to help viewers, advertisers, content publishers, and TV manufacturers succeed in the Streaming Decade,” Roku CEO Anthony Wood said in a statement announcing the company’s latest results.

Roku has some advantages, beginning with a slick interface, cheap hardware, and 12 years experience that have helped build its admirable position in what the company says is more than 51 million U.S. households.

That slightly edges Amazon’s Fire platform, which announced the previous week that it had crossed 50 million households. Roku’s household numbers are up nearly 39 percent from 2019, no doubt fueled by pandemic demand for easy, cheap access to a broad range of video entertainment on connected TVs and other devices.

As a result, if you’re a streamer, you pretty much need to be on Roku (and Amazon Fire) if you want reach most of the 110 million or so U.S. households.

Peacock and HBO Max learned that hard truth this past year when they fought with Roku (and Amazon) on issues such as the use of some of their content in the free, ad-supported Roku Channel.

Absent from Roku (and Fire) for months likely contributed to the painfully slow launches both Peacock and HBO Max in 2020. Both are now on board, which should help them and Roku’s bottom line.

And every bit as important as Roku’s streaming sticks, pucks and built-in interface have been, Roku Channel has proved to be a burgeoning profit center, providing most of 2020 profits. Watch time for Roku Channel has grown even faster than households in the past year, the company said, up 55 percent to 58.7 billion hours in 2020.

The channel is actually more closely analogous to full-fledged services such as Tubi, Xumo and Pluto, all of which are also available on Roku, and Amazon’s IMDb TV. It’s become a magnet for advertisers turning to connected TVs for targeted advertising with significant reach.

All of which helps explain why the company is getting so much love lately. First, Needham analyst Laura Martin upgraded the company’s price target to $400 a share, from $315, then the superheated tech investor scrum hit.

Shares jumped nearly 11 percent on Thursday, and another 5.2 percent on Friday to end the week at more than $399 per share. In early trading today, shares were up another 3 percent, as high as $416, before settling back slightly.

“What’s clear to us from 2020 is that ROKU has won the streaming wars in the US,” Martin wrote in a letter to investors. “Its (connected-TV) focus, platform competitive advantages, moats and execution excellence all suggest to us that ROKU will continue to take market share in 2021.”

And then there was Friday’s announcement of Roku’s acquisition, for “less than $100 million,” of about 75 shows from failed mobile-video startup Quibi. The shows include double Emmy winner #FreeRayshawn, as well as some series that never got a chance to air before Quibi closed about six months after its spring debut.

Regardless, it’s unlikely the Quibi shows by themselves will make a big dent in Roku’s current content mix. They’ll be made available on The Roku Channel in their original Quibi-required format for the balance of their deals, which typically were for two years (up to seven years in their cut-up “quick bites” format of eight- to 10-minute episodes).

Further, it seems unlikely Roku has the stomach, or wallet, to acquire a lot of other original content, given the cost of doing business in Peak Streaming Wars is gigantic.

Netflix alone spent a reported $19 billion in 2020 on content acquisitions around the world. Disney said it will spend $8 billion a year to feed its streaming strategy. Apple, worth nearly $2.2 trillion dollars and with around $193 billion in cash, appears willing to spend lavishly as needed for TV+.

Meanwhile, Martin’s approving comments in her investor letter also contain seeds of Roku’s future challenges.

Roku leads in the United States. Can it somehow parlay that first-to-market advantage into the much bigger opportunities internationally, where Disney, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, and Comcast among many competitors, are increasingly focused with their streaming strategies?

How does it compete while also partnering with those companies in, with the Quibi deal, what are now three big and expensive sectors? That will be the big challenge ahead for Roku, even as its executives celebrate a week without peer to start 2021.

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