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Baseball comes to Roku

August 10, 2009 |  9:01 pm

MLB-Roku player Major League Baseball has just added another way for fans to watch games: through Roku's $99 Digital Video Player. Like an earlier deal with Boxee, the agreement enables MLB.TV subscribers to move live webcasts from their PC screens to their television sets. The only charge for Roku's baseball channel is the MLB.TV subscription fee, which is about $35 for the remainder of the current season. The Roku capability makes the league's offering more appealing to baseball junkies, albeit not a huge number of them; the Roku box isn't exactly a mainstream appliance. The bigger winner is Roku, which relies on content deals such as this one to spur sales.

Prior to MLB.TV, Roku had only two online video partners: Netflix, which offers older movies and TV shows to subscribers, and Amazon, which provides newer releases on demand on an a la carte basis. The goal for Roku (and Boxee) is to present the full panoply of online video, or at least all the major sources of programming on the Web. But some top content providers and online aggregators have been reluctant to support this "over the top" distribution model for fear of undermining the revenue the industry collects from pay-TV operators. 

Baseball has no such qualms. But then, the league charges for the privilege of watching games online, which makes MLB.TV less of a threat to the league's traditional TV-rights deals than a free online outlet would be. In other words, MLB.TV was low-hanging fruit for Roku. A larger challenge for the company is persuading ad-supported cable TV networks, such as the ones supporting Time Warner's "TV Everywhere" initiative, to come on board. 

Tim Twerdahl, Roku's vice president of consumer products, said a lot of content owners are "trying to find the right platform" for an Internet-on-TV play. "You'll see us doing more sports with other partners," he added, saying the company expects to offer at least 10 channels by the end of the year. Roku has made a development kit available to programmers who want to customize their online feeds for the Roku player (for example, by converting from a keyboard-and-mouse interface to one that uses a simple remote control). It's also working on enabling targeted advertising through the box, potentially generating more dollars per viewer than programmers can charge for the commercials they broadcast. Targeting reduces the number of viewers reached, however, so such a capability may not be much of a recruiting tool for Roku until it has a significantly larger customer base.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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