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SMNYC Highlight: Fireside Chat With Roku President Charlie Collier and Media Cartographer Evan Shapiro

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On Wednesday, May 22, 2024, at Streaming Media NYC, media cartographer Evan Shapiro sat down with Charlie Collier, President of Roku Media and former President of AMC, for a deep dive discussion about the development and current dominance of Roku, the #1 streaming TV platform in America. They talked about how Roku’s UI brings “simplicity and delight” to their EPG, the ways that Roku collaborates with other platforms and publishers, and the need for a new media ecosystem to support creative risk-taking in the streaming era.

The talk began with an overview of Collier’s unique career trajectory. He is one of the most significant and groundbreaking TV executives of the last 20 years, having run AMC during its heyday of The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men.

How Collier Became Fascinated With the Intersection of Content and Commerce

“If you look at the jobs I've chosen to take, each one builds on the one before,” Collier said. Discussing his start in ad sales, he said, “You have to be curious, and you have to admit what you don't know and then go try to learn. I started out in ad sales largely because I just thought it was a really interesting way to grow. And I had a lot of mentors who didn't know they were mentors and they all said, ‘You can speak to people, and you can listen, and you can come up with ideas.’ And so I got into sales, but what I quickly realized is that I loved content.”

He told an amusing anecdote about how, during his college years, he often approached legendary Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels at New York Knicks games with his own written sketches, “And I would watch him crumple them up while I walked away.” This ultimately didn’t dissuade him, however, and he grew further interested in the “intersection of content and commerce.”

Shapiro and Collier’s “Aha Moments”

Collier and Shapiro initially intersected at Court TV, where Collier was Advertising Chief and Shapiro Senior Vice President of Marketing. They worked to steer the channel's focus less on the storytelling of crime and more on the investigation and mystery-solving process, which they saw led to better viewer engagement. This gave Shapiro his big “aha moment.”

“This researcher at Court TV named Darren Campo pointed out that 90% of the population in the United States knew what the word forensics was,” he said. “And we built the whole prime time around forensics, with a show called Forensic Files, which now has thousands of episodes.” He asked Collier what he considered his significant turning point “aha moment.”

Collier talked about his tenure as CEO of Fox Entertainment and the development of its OTT FAST platform acquisition, Tubi. “What I noticed was what's driving so many of their impressions and every other streamer's impressions – even the biggest – is the platform,” he said.

How Roku Minimizes the Paradox of Choice With “Simplicity and Delight”

“Julia Alexander from Puck News wrote that the most valuable home screen [for users] is now the home screen on the computer on your wall that happens to be your smart TV,” Collier said. For him, this underscored the importance of fostering an immediately seamless experience for smart TV users from the moment their device is turned on. “The platform is so much bigger than the pieces in a world of fragmentation of attention and viewership,” he said. “The one constant is everyone has to turn on their television wherever they're going.” This led to the essence of Roku’s notion of creating a user experience of “simplicity and delight.” By making search and discoverability as seamless as possible and helping to mitigate the ever-present “paradox of choice” that users face with far too many viewing options, Roku now stands as the #1 streaming TV platform in America, with a presence in over 82 million households.

The Beneficial Ways Roku Collaborates With Other Platforms and Publishers

Shapiro and Collier discussed the unique ways that Roku beneficially collaborates with other platforms and publishers even if they are technically competitors and why this approach ultimately helps everyone. “YouTube is the number one channel on television in the United States,” Shapiro said. “I think somewhere between 40 and 50% of their usage is on Roku. [And] a huge portion of Disney, Netflix…all these apps you've launched, in large part because of the ease of use of your platform.” He then wondered how the dominance of Roku as a gateway to these other platforms impacts its own platform, The Roku Channel. Collier said that it essentially only helps raise The Roku Channel’s profile, and their approach is to not even directly emphasize that viewers are watching programming on The Roku Channel. What matters is that users came to it through the Roku gateway itself, so there isn’t a great need for unique branding for its channel.

Shapiro marveled that Roku is “Competing for eyeballs and impressions, and you keep more of those impressions while you're also enabling viewership of YouTube and all these other publishers, and you're out there co-selling environments like the Olympics, and you're also doing a big partnership with Paramount and a big partnership from an ad sales standpoint with a bunch of players out there.” Ultimately, this underscores Shapiro’s notion of media “collabor-gators,” where content providers and gatekeepers must find ways to coexist while maintaining a symbiotically competitive relationship.

Collier said, “It is such a luxury to both help them grow and, of course, get the viewer where they want to go. And if you have a library of some of the best shows ever, which happens to be the case on the Roku Channel, well, great, I hope you enjoy them there. And if you're going to search for fill-in-the-blank next show, we hope to get you there delightfully, too.”

Roku’s Nurturing of “The Streamer's Journey” Helps Creators in a Radically Changed TV Landscape

Collier noted that it is now harder than ever for creators to get anything made and widely seen. “I'd like to create models with our scale that can help nurture artists,” he said. “So much of the challenge for artists is there's no syndication window because so much has been bought at cost-plus by the big streamers, and then those shows are put behind the paywall.” He said the linear TV syndication market that used to “fuel everything” no longer exists. “Those artists need to be supported by a new ecosystem as well,” he said. “So every deal I make with an artist, I think, how can they be better because they bet on Roku and because we bet on them? How can we elevate that product?”

As a specific example, Collier talked about The Spiderwick Chronicles on The Roku Channel. “It bounced around because of some of the challenges in the economics of the business over the last couple of years,” he said. “Disney made this really elegant Christian Slater-starring big piece of IP. And one of our entrepreneurial developers, Brian Tannenbaum, was tracking it. And when Disney let it go, we worked with Paramount, too, with the underlying studio to put it on our platform. Then, we used our platform advantages to showcase it. And our home screen was used in the way I've described. We tried to guide those on the ‘streamer journey’ who would care about this IP type to discover content. And it became our single most watched piece of television ever.”

Collier’s Thoughts on Avoiding Industry Burnout and Showing Gratitude

Finally, Shapiro asked Collier, “What are the secrets for waking up and wanting to attack this daily? Not running out of gas, not being beat back by the machine, but actually leaning in and seeing the opportunity in the machine itself?”

Collier said that, despite some of the clichés associated with the notion, it boils down to simply being consistently kind. “I have bad days just like you do, and we all do, but over time, being kind and being happy. I saw so many old friends here today, and what's great is you realize when you connect, having not seen each other for years, that hopefully you’ve left them better than you found them.”

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