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Roku Recommends ... You Keep Watching This Show, and a Bunch Of Others, Too

Roku Recommends Andrew Hawkins Maria Menounos
(Image credit: Roku)

In one of the easiest renewal decisions a streaming service has made this year, Roku is re-upping a weekly original series that debuted over the summer and has roosted in the platform’s top 10 most-watched lists since. 

That the show is 15 minutes long, costs relatively little, and drives audience interest to undiscovered shows only makes the renewal decision a required one, rather than just an easy one. 

David Bloom

(Image credit: David Bloom)

The show is Roku Recommends, and its success suggests not only more such programming for Roku but also for other streaming companies trying to keep audiences engaged instead of overwhelmed. 

The on-demand show features hosts Maria Menounos and Andrew “Hawk” Hawkins, spotlighting “brand-new shows and hidden gems” every Thursday, chosen from the roughly zillion hours of programming streaming on the Roku Channel and elsewhere across the Roku platform. It’s produced by Funny or Die as one of the first products developed by the Roku Brand Studio, which launched last spring under Chris Bruss. 

“The purpose of Roku Recommends was to solve an issue we were seeing with our audience and also just us as individuals; we knew there tends to be this Paradox of Choice,” Bruss said. “There are so many great shows and movies to watch on so many different channels and all at your fingertips. Most people turn on their Roku and they're not totally sure what they want to watch. So there's both an opportunity but also a little bit of anxiety there about, ‘Okay, what am I actually going to watch?’”

One key part of Mission Accomplished: the company says 71% of Roku Recommends viewers have gone on to stream a new channel on the service. They found something new to watch.

“We also have some Nielsen data that shows the average person takes seven minutes to decide what to watch,” Bruss said. “There's almost this paralysis. The purpose of Roku Recommends was to tell our Roku audience, ‘Hey, give us 15 minutes a week, come join these really authentic and experienced hosts, and let them point you in the right direction, give you a top five things that you might want to check out this weekend.”

Importantly, the show doesn’t just call out, say, the five biggest shows debuting on major streamers that weekend. It leverages Roku’s vast pool of data from 55 million households to surface less-prominent programs that also are getting lots of low-profile love from viewers. 

“We have to be able to surface some of these hidden gems, shows that make people say, ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot about that. I always been meaning to watch that,’” Bruss said. “So that's the purpose of the show.”

That kind of discovery tool has in turn grabbed the attention of marketers wanting to leverage a high-profile ad opportunity on the biggest U.S. streaming platform to reach audiences actively seeking new things to watch. It’s a high-propensity audience custom-built for at least some kinds of brands. 

“Obviously, there's a lot of advertisers who want to capture the attention of the Roku audience before that audience then goes into an SVOD service where there's no ads,” Bruss said. “So, ‘Hey, you’re having trouble deciding what to watch, click here.’ It's not detracting from your user journey, but it's really added to that experience. And, hey, we can grab your attention right here for one of our many Brand Partners before we lose them into an ad-free experience.”

Leveraging data to uncover less-obvious viewing opportunities feels like an obvious strategy, but I can’t think of programming elsewhere in the streaming universe doing that sort of thing routinely, at least not yet. If Roku Recommends continues to be a popular weekly destination for viewers, it seems likely to be copied endlessly. 

Yes, Google TV and Apple TV and Amazon Fire and Netflix already showcase little bits of their shows through their algorithmically generated interfaces, specific to each viewer. And yes, creating one streaming show a week with recommendations designed to appeal to everyone in 55 million households is a bit of a blunt instrument in a highly targeted world. 

But in using Menounos and Hawkins to talk about shows worth watching, Roku is moving beyond the power of the algorithm to a different kind of power, that of personality and human connection. That kind of link can pay dividends for years; just ask Mary Hart and Entertainment Tonight. 

That’s why Bruss and crew are pondering ways to create more specialized equivalents of Roku Recommends for various verticals, though he declined to be detail what’s being considered  just yet. 

Another long-term possibility is click-through links to the shows being discussed, or to brand offers on the show. The platform already enables advertisers to show QR codes onscreen linking viewers through their mobile phones to an off-platform advertising experience, Bruss said. 

More generally, Roku Recommends’ success sets one to thinking about how to harness both the algorithm and the personalities in custom-generated regular programming. Perhaps the studio might record additional, more-specific recommendations based on data, then chop them up and reassemble multiple versions of the week’s show in a way that can be more targeted to specific demographics? 

It’s intriguing, Bruss said. 

“The beauty of Roku, and the beauty of streaming television, is that it has that scale of television,” Bruss said. “It's where you're going to watch the best, most premium content, but it also has all the benefits of digital media, from data, from targeting, from all of those things advertisers have come to expect when it comes to digital media. The dream that you have there, of continuing to merge those worlds, is certainly an exciting one. And that’s one of the reasons why we were so excited to start the Brand Studio, knowing that we can be much more creative with this canvas that we have.”

David Bloom

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.