For several years now, the lines that once divided television media and television mediums have been blurring. Cable giant Comcast is the parent to TV brand NBC and movie studio Universal, for instance. Telco powerhouse AT&T is not only a cable provider but is also now the proud owner of Time Warner and its HBO networks and Warner Bros studio. Even e-commerce outfit Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) has been dealing with something of an identity crisis, selling set-top boxes that deliver streaming video to consumers while simultaneously cultivating its own film and TV studio meant to make its Prime service even more marketable.
Amazon's role as an entertainment middleman has been a bit more nuanced than it's been for most other players in the TV business, though. Not only is it media and a medium, not unlike set-top streaming box market leader Roku (NASDAQ: ROKU), it also generates revenue by promoting certain services on its platforms. Translation: If it seems like a particular app or brand is being well promoted on your Amazon Fire TV stick, there's a good chance that company paid Amazon to be put in that spotlight.
With that as the backdrop, Amazon took a sizable, decided step toward one particular corner of the streaming TV business last week, and stepped away from another. Last week, it added Alphabet's (NASDAQ: GOOGL) (NASDAQ: GOOG) YouTube TV and Dish Network's (NASDAQ: DISH) Sling TV as featured live television options to its Fire TV app, and will soon do the same for Walt Disney's (NYSE: DIS) Hulu + Live TV.
It matters simply because those are the big three names in live-streaming, as measured by subscriber counts. In so doing, Amazon is effectively doubling down on winning the hardware race while crimping its capacity to get into the live streaming business for itself.
It's all about reach
To be clear, it isn't likely that Amazon will become the live television provider it's occasionally rumored it will be any time soon.
While Amazon boasts around 150 million paying Prime members that could certainly be addressed as prospective cable customers, becoming a true TV network or complete cable brand isn't a mere matter of flipping a switch. Indeed, adding its own live television option would only put the company at odds with the very live TV platforms it just started to feature. For the time being, Amazon appears content to let other names do that work.
So if it's not about tiptoeing into the cable business, then what is Amazon's TV business about?
The seemingly obvious answer is also the right one. By featuring YouTube TV and Sling TV as top live television choices within the Fire TV interface -- and with Hulu + Live TV on the way -- Amazon aims to become the most useful, usable tech in this sliver of the television business.
There's certainly lots of value in having technology attached to consumers' televisions. It makes them part of Amazon's vast data-collection ecosystem, which in turn can be leveraged in many other ways. Fire TV owners, as an example, are more likely than not to be Prime members, and Prime members are widely believed to spend more at Amazon.com than non-Prime members do.
To that end, know that Amazon's live streaming ambitions are enjoying much greater traction than they were able to just a few years back. While Roku's market share surged to a strong lead when the streaming box business was still young, Amazon has since technically taken the lead. Roku reported there were 39.8 million active users of its devices as of the end of Q1; Amazon says it's now actively serving over 40 million Fire TV device owners. The company can also monetize those consumers in all sorts of other ways, while Roku's options are more limited.
The takeaway for investors is simply a warning to not compare Amazon directly to Roku, or to Alphabet for that matter, which is also in the streaming hardware business with its Chromecast devices at the same time it's looking to expand its aforementioned YouTube TV business. All of these names monetize their technologies and services differently.
Sure, the e-commerce behemoth appears to be assisting indirect competitors on the television media front. Amazon may ultimately have more to gain on the medium front, however, by making its Fire TV tech more user-friendly, and therefore more marketable.
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John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. James Brumley owns shares of Alphabet (A shares) and AT&T. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Amazon, Roku, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast and recommends the following options: long January 2021 $60 calls on Walt Disney, short January 2022 $1940 calls on Amazon, long January 2022 $1920 calls on Amazon, and short July 2020 $115 calls on Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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