CEO Anthony Wood, on the company’s earnings call Thursday, gave props to Disney for blowing past Wall Street expectations with the new streaming service in its debut and said Roku helped them get there.
“Hats off to Disney,” he said. “That was incredible.” He added that in addition to great content, what Disney did with the launch of Disney Plus was “lean into the tools that we have available on our platform” to promote subscriptions. “So I think we were an important part of them reaching that milestone,” Wood said.
Disney Plus, which first launched Nov. 12, had reached 28.6 million user signups as of Feb. 3, according to chief Bob Iger.
In Q4, Roku said it added a record 4.6 million net active accounts in Q4, to end 2019 with 36.9 million active accounts. Streaming hours increased by 16.3 billion hours over last year, up 68% year-over-year to a record 40.3 billion in 2019.
Meanwhile, asked if NBCUniversal’s forthcoming Peacock streaming service will be on Roku, Wood responded, “We’re an essential partner for any streaming services trying to build a national audience in United States. So, I think it would be natural to assume that there will be some sort of deal down there.”
Roku wouldn’t quantify the financial lift it got from Disney Plus, although CFO Steve Louden told analysts that its pact with the Mouse House did produce “dollars in the quarter and dollars in the  outlook related to new services like Disney Plus or Apple or others.”
Roku’s content distribution agreements have multiple elements, Louden said. The traditional structure is a revenue share with partners, “but there’s often other components of that be it minimum guarantees or promotions that we might give,” he added. Louden will be stepping down as CFO once Roku hires a replacement, the company announced in December.
Shares of Roku were up 2% in mid-morning trading Friday, after opening up 7%. Not everyone on Wall Street believes the company has a bright future.
“Looking forward we see signs of all areas of the ecosystem beginning to squeeze Roku,” Pivotal Research Group analyst Jeffrey Wlodarczak wrote in a Feb. 14 research note (titled “The Best It Is Ever Going To Get”), reiterating his “sell” rating on the stock. Wlodarczak called out challenges from cable operators including Comcast and Cox, which are “aggressively attacking the [direct-to-consumer] aggregation opportunity with free equipment and programming.” He also noted that Roku’s competitors like Apple and Amazon “are not necessarily focused on generating a profit in DTC aggregation” and cited Roku’s high valuation (“an alarmingly high” 12 times forecast 2020 revenue).
On the call Thursday, Wood said Roku doesn’t see itself competing with cable operators. “There’s a lot of reasons people love their Roku and price is one of them,” he said. “We offer a great price but there’s a lot of other reasons as well. We also have the Xfinity app on Roku.”
Roku had a negative gross margin (of -0.5%) for its hardware business in the fourth quarter. In announcing its 2020 outlook, the company said it plans to operate the Player segment at a gross margin “close to zero to continue driving device sales and growing active accounts.”
According Roku, about half its current user base doesn’t have a pay-TV package — and predicted that by 2024, roughly 50% of all U.S. TV households will have canceled pay TV or will never have subscribed to traditional cable or satellite pay TV.