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Sound and Vision: Roku is mopping up the budget TV market, but where is the competition?

OPINION: After whetting its beak with a couple of Hisense and TCL TV models, Roku doesn’t seem to be slowing down, accelerating forth with several new models in 2023.

The recent announcement of JVC Roku TVs comes after new Sharp Roku models, Metz Roku sets, and RCA Roku tellies. Every electronics store you visit, you’ll probably find a Roku tellie near you.

Sheer number of models doesn’t necessarily mean success, but it can help their chances. I was of the mind that with so many TVs from different brands sporting its badge, Roku could end up competing with itself. But Roku’s focus is user engagement. They won’t care who is selling the TV as long as it has a Roku interface.

Roku has been popular in the US with the TCL and Hisense models, but in the UK, it really seems to have put its foot down in 2023. A look at what else is available and the bullish move makes a certain amount of sense.

Let’s go back a few years. Before the pandemic, cheap LCD TVs were selling, but they weren’t doing so much for the profits of Samsung, LG, and others. The influx of even cheaper TVs from brands such as Hisense and TCL reduced profit margins.

This made sense for Hisense and TCL as they attempted to gain a foothold outside of Asia, and for the likes of Samsung and LG, the reduced profits led to a stopping production of their own LCD panels and a focus on premium, higher profit generators like OLED and 8K – though ending production of LCD panels was delayed due to the pandemic lifting TV sales.

Recently Panasonic outsourced the manufacturing of its cheaper models to eastern Europe, another sign of the pinch in the affordable market. Sales of budget TVs boost the coffers, for sure, but for the established brands they are no longer profit centres.

You look at the offerings by these established brands and while you will find cheaper TVs in the range, you won’t see them promoted with as much fervor as the premium models – in fact there’s barely a whisper about them. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what LG’s cheaper options are – their focus lies elsewhere.

Which has left a gap in the market, big enough that Roku can announce four new partnerships in just over a year. Partly I wonder whether the lack of interest in making cheaper TVs is down due to ‘Black Friday’ frenzy devaluing the price in the eyes of would-be purchasers. Prime Day is coming, and I would not be surprised if TV brands held back their premium stock from discounts, put up their older models in the sale, or have discounts on the 75-inch+ TVs instead.

There’s another aspect to this as well and it’s about user interfaces. I remember being in Berlin for a Philips event, and a speaker mentioned it was going to be content and interfaces that shifted the landscape going forward. This was coming out of the pandemic where everyone was sat on their couches, but this shift has materialized in the approach of TV brands.

LG is pushing its webOS software as much as anything else and looking to bring it to other TV platforms. Samsung is licensing its Tizen platform, while Google TV and TiVO OS are both looking to make a concerted push in the UK market, along with the likes of VIDDA U and Fire TV.

Interfaces typify the relationship we have with TVs. Whether it’s video, music streaming, or cloud gaming, TVs are re-asserting themselves as the main screen in the home, synching with your phone or tablet easily.

Which is why I feel bigger brands have missed a trick by vacating the lower reaches of the TV market. This is an area where, if you get the software right and UI footprint is light, you can wean viewers on that very interface that’s becoming a differentiator in the market. Right now, Roku is eager to gobble up not just market share, but familiarity and mind share too.

Roku is playing it smart (pun sort of intended) and leaving the budget market wide open for others might be a decision the more established brands may come to rue in the longer term.

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