In this week’s edition of his Lowpass newsletter, Janko Roettgers covered a Roku patent that seems to telegraph that the company is planning some heavy advertising tactics for those who purchase Roku TV televisions. The patent centers around the idea of displaying ads on these TVs whenever they’re tuned to an HDMI input that’s paused or idle. Theoretically, this would allow Roku to present ads throughout your whole TV experience — and in places where it’s not viable to do so today. Your PS5, Xbox, Apple TV, or Blu-ray player could become yet another canvas for the company to continue growing its already-lucrative advertising business.

According to the patent, the company would use a number of different clues to determine when an HDMI source is paused; the Roku TV could wait for extended audio silence or simply analyze the onscreen frames to gauge when movement has stopped, among other approaches. And the patent mentions using automatic content recognition (ACR) to detect what you’re watching on an Apple TV (or playing on a console) to present with relevant ads. ACR is nothing new and one of those things that many of us agree to when quickly going through a new TV’s initial setup.

Obviously, it’d be very easy for Roku to massively screw this up, interrupt your entertainment, and outrage customers. And a patent itself is no guarantee that this ads-on-every-HDMI-input concept will become reality. But it does follow a recent trend of streaming box (and stick) makers pushing right up against the line of what consumers are willing to tolerate — and testing whether they can quietly move the goalposts. Even Microsoft is dabbling with the same.

A few months ago, Amazon began automatically playing trailers on Fire TV devices right at startup if a user took no immediate action. The move sure did piss a lot of people off — but apparently not to enough of a level for the company to revert the change. You can avoid the autoplaying ads by disabling them in settings, but even then, sometimes you’ll see full-screen image banner slideshows.

I had a very strong “they can’t be serious with this” reaction to the immediate ads and sought comment from Amazon. Spokesperson Madison Daniels told me the following:

We’re constantly looking for more ways to help customers discover new TV shows and movies on Fire TV and ads are one way we do that. Our most recent update to the Fire TV home screen means customers will start on the Learn More button of one of our most popular placements to discover something great to watch.

Isn’t discoverability the very purpose of the homescreen itself? I digress. Not long after that, a Chromecast user spotted this full-screen ad for chicken tender wraps from Carls Jr. Does the wrap look delicious? Absolutely. But this goes a step beyond the typical (and I’d say expected / acceptable) type of ads that we’re used to seeing. Sponsored “recommendations” for movies and shows have become quite common across TV platforms and streaming software. But a chicken wrap? C’mon.

The inescapable truth is that ads help to subsidize the cost of these streaming players, some of which can be purchased for under $30. But you can also spend $100 more than that on a Fire TV Cube, and you’ll be getting blasted with the same autoplaying ads as someone who bought the cheapest model. That’s a perfect example of where this ham-fisted advertising really rubs me the wrong way. What’s the point of getting the premium thing?

This is why I almost always advise people to just spend the extra money on an Apple TV 4K. The reprieve from drowning in ads is well worth it. There are ways to circumvent ads on other devices, whether it’s Pi-hole, alternate launchers (on Android streamers), and more. But those are extra steps that most people will never take. And for them, the outlook keeps getting more bleak.

I hope that Roku doesn’t implement the ideas laid out in this patent covered by Lowpass. Roku TVs are often good! They’re dependable, get a long road of software updates, and feel instantly familiar to many people right out of the box. And I’m looking forward to checking out how a Roku Pro TV compares with today’s impressive Mini LED competition from TCL, Hisense, and more. But I’m not confident that the company won’t keep us speeding down this trajectory of getting ads in front of eyeballs at all costs. Even if Roku doesn’t, it seems like only a matter of time before another TV brand takes the worst kind of inspiration from this patent.


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