T-Mobile customers on unlimited wireless family plans get a free year of Quibi

T-Mobile this morning officially announced its exclusive partnership with the new streaming service, Quibi, set to launch on April 6. The service will be made available for free for a year to T-Mobile customers on its unlimited wireless family plans.

The streaming service, founded by Hollywood media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, has been specifically built for on-the-go viewing on mobile devices. Its “shows” can be watched in 10 minutes or less and take advantage of the mobile device’s ability to be held different ways to enable seamless switching between portrait and landscape modes.

Thanks to Katzenberg’s industry connections, Quibi original content will feature A-Listers and other big names, including Jennifer Lopez, Chrissy Teigen, Chance the Rapper, Liam Hemsworth, Sophie Turner, Lena Waithe, Nicole Richie, Reese Witherspoon and others.

Typically, Quibi subscriptions are offered at $4.99 per month for its ad-supported plan or $7.99 per month for its ad-free option.

Quibi had confirmed last October that a deal with T-Mobile was in place, in statements made to various news outlets. But the details of the deal itself were not yet announced nor confirmed by T-Mobile at that time.

According to T-Mobile’s release, Magenta and ONE plans with taxes and fees included will be eligible for the free Quibi add-on, as will discounted First Responder, Military and Magenta Plus 55 plans, and small business customers with up to 12 lines.

T-Mobile customers can go to mytmobile.com now through July 7 to sign up, or they can use the T-Mobile Android or iOS app beginning on April 6 to add Quibi.

In addition, until April 3, T-Mobile customers who use the T-Mobile Tuesdays app for Android or iOS can get early access to three bonus episodes of the new Jennifer Lopez series, “Thanks a Million” when it launches on April 6. That means customers will have a total of 6 episodes to watch at launch. And on April 7, five people who enter the T-Mobile Tuesdays sweepstakes will win a free Google Pixel 4 XL.

“T-Mobile customers have always been ahead of the curve – streaming more data, watching more mobile video – so when we first heard about Quibi, we knew our customers would love it,” said Mike Sievert, President and CEO of T-Mobile, in a statement. “And, with more of us staying home right now, Quibi’s never been more needed. It comes on the scene with a totally different experience, made for mobile, quick to watch and as entertaining as anything you’ve ever seen!”

Teaming up with a mobile carrier to gain traction among customers for a streaming service is a viable strategy. Disney+ did it with Verizon, which ultimately accounted for 20% of its early customers.

However, Quibi isn’t Disney — it’s not a known brand with pent-up consumer demand for a streaming service. What’s more, its initial marketing no longer makes sense in the post-COVID-19 era.

Quibi has had to reposition its service in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak as something that works for at-home viewing. But in reality, the service had been intended to fill those empty moments in your on-the-go lifestyle — like riding the subway, standing in line, sitting in a waiting room before an appointment, and more. Now, with people stuck at home in government lockdowns and home quarantines, the minutes stretch out endlessly. There’s plenty of time to watch long-form content and the living room TV has more draw over the small phone screen. 

But ultimately, Quibi’s success may not come down to its technology, tricks, or episode length. It will come down the quality of its shows and their ability to capture an audience.

 

 

Disney+ beat Netflix in recent US downloads (report)

Netflix may still dominate global streaming, but Disney+ has made a huge splash in the United States, where it launched in November.

That much was pretty clear already, and other reports have already suggested that Disney+ was the most downloaded app and biggest search trend in the United States last year. Now a new report from mobile intelligence company Apptopia and competitive engagement platform Braze suggests that Disney’s streaming service has continued its spectacular success into 2020.

The report examines the months leading up to and after the service’s U.S. launch, and it includes charts of the most popular streaming apps for the first three months of 2020.

According to those charts, Netflix was the most downloaded streaming app globally, with 59.1 million downloads, followed by YouTube at 39.4 million. Disney+ (which is currently launching across Europe and India) was number seven on the list, with 17.5 million downloads.

In the United States however, Disney+ leads with 14.1 million downloads, versus 11.9 million for Netflix (which may have already saturated the U.S. market) and 8.1 million for Hulu (which is also owned primarily by Disney).

Lest you think this is purely a one-on-one contest between Netflix and Disney, it’s also worth noting that neither of them wins on time spent in app — instead, it’s YouTube Kids that wins in both the United States and globally.

Apptopia/Braze report

Image Credits: Apptopia and Braze

And yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is leading to even more streaming, with the report showing 30.7 percent increase in streaming sessions in March

The report suggests that the success of Disney+ means that there’s still room for new streaming services. (It might, however, simply reflect Disney’s dominance of the entertainment world. It remains to be seen whether Quibi, NBCUniversal’s Peacock and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max can achieve similar success as they launch in the coming months.)

The report also looks at strategies that successfully drive engagement, as measured by daily active users. It points out that the most popular brands are 21 percent more likely to send push notifications and 300 percent more likely to send in-app messages. It also concludes that “content that creates fandom is king”:

Adult Swim’s cartoon series Rick and Morty proved to be the most effective content for generating both short-term and long-term monthly active users (MAU). Over the course of the most recent season of Rick and Morty, the Adult Swim app’s daily active users (DAU) increased by 504%. Amazon Prime Video’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, HBO’s Game of Thrones, and sporting events also drove DAU growth in a meaningful way.

 

Original Content podcast: ‘Star Trek: Picard’ launches with a bumpy, memorable season

Star Trek TV shows generally take a while to get good — but if any of them was going to have a strong start, you’d think it’d be “Star Trek: Picard.”

After all, it returns Patrick Stewart to the role that made him famous, that of onetime Starfleet captain Jean-Luc Picard. Plus, the writing team was led by Michael Chabon, author of beloved novels like “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” (He also wrote a lovely New Yorker piece about writing for Star Trek while his father was dying.)

As we discuss on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, the resulting show doesn’t quite avoid the standard first season growing pains, with a fast-paced pilot followed by several slow, setup- and exposition-heavy episodes. Throughout the season, the writers still seem to be figuring out what kind of show they want to be making, and it all ends with some preposterous, clunky twists in the two-part finale.

But even if “Picard” didn’t quite live up to our expectations, it’s still a pretty first season. It was genuinely moving to see Stewart on the bridge of a spaceship again, and to greet returning friends like Brent Spiner as Data (who died in the movie “Nemesis” but appears here in an opening dream sequence), as well as Jonathan Frakes as William Riker.

And despite its occasional clunkiness, the story finds new emotional notes for Picard, as he struggles to overcome decades of disillusionment and become the Picard we know. There’s also fresh science fictional territory, as “Picard” treats artificial intelligence and synthetic life more seriously than any previous Star Trek show.

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:19 “Star Trek: Picard” season 1 review
24:28 “Star Trek: Picard” spoiler discussion

“Content network effect” makes TikTok tough to copy

Many TikTok videos don’t start from scratch, so neither can its competitors. TikTok is all about remixes where users shoot a new video to recontextualize audio pulled from someone else’s clip, or riff on an existing meme or concept. That only works because TikTok’s had time to build up an immense armory of content to draw inspiration from.

Creators will find themselves unequipped trying to get started on TikTok copycats including Facebook Lasso, and Instagram Reels which is testing in Brazil. Direct competitors like Triller and Dubsmash are racing to build up their archives. YouTube Shorts, which The Information today reported is in development, only has a shot if Google lets users harness the 5 billion videos people already watch on YouTube each day.

This is the power of what I call “content network effect”: Each piece of content adds value to the rest. That’s TikTok.

You’re likely familiar with traditional network effect — ‘a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains additional value as more people use it.’ It’s not just the network itself that gains value, as the value delivered to each user increases too. Today’s top social networks are shining examples. The more people there are on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, the more people you can connect to, and the more material their relevance algorithms can draw on to fill your feeds.

If you had to choose between using two identical social networks, you’re probably going to pick the one with more friends or creators already onboard. Network effects raise the switching cost of moving to a different network. Even if it has better features, fewer ads, or less misinformation and bullying, you’re unlikely to leave a robust network behind and decamp to a sparser one. That makes scaled social networks difficult to Disrupt. All the top ones have been around for almost a decade or more.

Except for TikTok. The Chinese music/video app has managed to demonstrate a new concept of “content network effect”. In its case, each video uploaded to the app makes every future potential video more valuable. That’s because all the content on TikTok serves as remix fodder for the rest. Every song, dance, joke, prank, and monologue generates resources for other creators to exploit. It’s a bottomless well of inspiration.

TikTok productizes remix culture by making it easy to “use this sound”. Tap the audio button on any video and it becomes yours. Click through and you’ll see all the other videos that use it. TikTok even offers a whole search engine for sorting through sounds by categories like Trending, Greatest Hits, Love, Gaming, and travel. Sometimes remixes are based on an idea rather than an audio. #FlipTheSwitch sees couples instantly swapping clothes when the light flicks off, and has collected over 3.6 billion videos across over 500,000 remixed versions of the video.

You can even duet with the original creator, sharing your video and theirs side-by-side simultaneously. A solo performance becomes a chorus as more duets are hitched together. Meanwhile, remixes of remixes of remixes provide an esoteric reward for hardcore users who recognize how a gag has evolved or spiraled into absurdity.

Other apps in the past have spawned video responses, hashtags, quote-tweets, surveys, and chain letters and other ways for pieces of content to interact or iterate. And there’s always been parodies. But TikTok proves the power of forging a social app with content network effect at its core.

Facilitating remixes offers a way to lower the bar for producing user generated content. You’d don’t have to be astoundingly creative or original to make something entertaining. Each individual’s life experiences inform their perspective that could let them interpret an idea in a new way.

What began with someone ripping audio of two people chanting “don’t be Suspicious, don’t be suspicious” while sneaking through a graveyard in TV show Parks & Recs led to people lipsyncing it while trying to escape their infant’s room without waking them up, leaving the house wearing clothes they stole from their sister’s closet, trying to keep a llama as a pet, and photoshopping themselves to look taller. Unless someone’s already done the work to record an audio clip, there’s nothing to inspire and enable others to put their spin on it.

That’s why I wrote that Mark Zuckerberg misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok after the CEO told Facebook’s staff that “I kind of think about TikTok as if it were Explore for Stories”. Facebook and Instagram found massive success cloning Snapchat Stories because all they had to do was copy its features. Stories are autobiographical life vlogging. All you need are the creative tools, which Instagram and Facebook rebuilt, and people to share to, which the apps had billions of.

But TikTok isn’t about sharing what you’re up to like Stories that typically start from scratch since each user’s life is different. It’s micro-entertainment powered by content network effect. If TikTok competitors give people the same video recording features and distribution potential, they’ll still be missing the archive of source material.

Facebook’s Lasso looks just like TikTok but it’s failed to gain steam since launching in November 2018. Instagram Reels smartly copies TikTok’s remixing tools, but if the Brazilian tests go well and it eventually launches in English, it will start out flat footed.

When YouTube launches Shorts, as The Information’s Alex Heath and Jessica Toonkel report it’s planning to do before the end of the year, it will be buried inside its main app. That could make it impossible to compete with a dedicated app like TikTok that opens straight to its For You page. Its one saving grace would be if YouTube unlocks its entire database of videos for remixing.

Thanks to its position as the default place to host videos and its experience with searchability that Facebook and Instagram lack, YouTube Shorts could at least have all the ingredients necessary. But given YouTube’s non-stop failures in social with everything from Google+ to YouTube Stories to its dozen deadpooled messaging apps, it may not have the chef skills necessary to combine them.

Other social networks should consider how the concept applies to them. Could Facebook turn your friends’ photos into collage materials? Could Instagram let you share themed collections of your favorite posts? Remix culture isn’t going away, so neither will the value of fostering content network effects. With video consumption outpacing professional production, remixes are how the world will stay entertained and how amateurs can contribute creations worthy of going viral.

In a significant change, Apple customers can now buy or rent titles directly in the Prime Video app

Amazon has made it easier for Apple customers to buy or rent movies from its Prime Video app with a recent update. Before, customers using the Prime Video app from an iOS device or Apple TV would have to first purchase or rent the movie elsewhere — like through the Amazon website or a Prime Video app on another device, such as the Fire TV, Roku, or an Android device. Now, Prime Video users can make the purchase directly through the app instead.

The changes weren’t formally announced, but quickly spotted once live.

Amazon declined to comment, but confirmed to TechCrunch the feature is live now for customers in the U.S., U.K., and Germany.

The change makes it possible for Prime Video users to rent or buy hundreds of thousands of titles from Amazon’s video catalog. This includes new release movies, TV shows, classic movies, award-winning series, Oscar-nominated films, and more.

This is supported on a majority of Apple devices, including the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch running iOS/iPadOS 12.2 or higher, as well as Apple TV HD and Apple TV 4K.

Amazon for years has prevented users from directly purchasing movies and TV shows from Prime Video app on Apple devices. That’s because Apple requires a 30% cut of all in-app purchases taking place on its platform. To avoid fees, many apps — including not only Amazon, but also Netflix, Tinder, Spotify, and others — have bypassed the major app platforms’ fees at times by redirecting users to a website.

Since the news broke, many have questioned if Amazon had some sort of deal with Apple that was making the change possible — especially since it didn’t raise the cost of rentals or subscriptions to cover a 30% cut.

As it turns out, it sort of does.

Apple tells TechCrunch it offers program aimed at supporting subscription video entertainment providers.

“Apple has an established program for premium subscription video entertainment providers to offer a variety of customer benefits — including integration with the Apple TV app, AirPlay 2 support, tvOS apps, universal search, Siri support and, where applicable, single or zero sign-on,” an Apple spokesperson said. “On qualifying premium video entertainment apps such as Prime Video, Altice One and Canal+, customers have the option to buy or rent movies and TV shows using the payment method tied to their existing video subscription,” the spokesperson noted.

Amazon’s adoption (acceptance?) into this program is notable, as it comes at a time when Apple is under increased scrutiny for alleged anti-competitive behaviors — particularly those against companies with a rival product or service — like Prime Video is to Apple TV+, or Fire TV is to Apple TV, for example.

Amazon called attention to the new feature in its Prime Video app, which now alerts you upon first launch that “Movie night just got better” in a full-screen pop-up. It also advertises the easier option for direct purchases through a home screen banner.

 

 

WarnerMedia’s new boss is former Hulu CEO Jason Kilar

Hulu co-founder and former chief executive Jason Kilar has been named the new chief executive of WarnerMedia .

It’s the latest executive reshuffling at the AT&T-owned media giant, which saw its previous CEO, John Stankey, promoted to president and chief operating officer while still holding the media subsidiary’s reins.

Stankey will remain in those roles, and Kilar will be reporting to him starting on May 1 — right before the launch of WarnerMedia’s new streaming service HBO Max.

Kilar has plenty of experience in the streaming world, not just through his time at Hulu (which he left at the beginning of 2013), but also as co-founder and CEO of video service Vessel, which was acquired and shut down by Verizon (which also owns TechCrunch). And before all that, he spent nearly a decade at Amazon, where his roles included senior vice president of worldwide application software.

The fact that Kilar is taking the lead at all of WarnerMedia, including its film and TV divisions, suggests that streaming is going to be the company’s biggest priority moving forward.

“Jason is a dynamic executive with the right skill set to lead WarnerMedia into the future,” Stankey said in the announcement. “His experience in media and entertainment, direct-to-consumer video streaming and advertising is the perfect fit for WarnerMedia, and I am excited to have him lead the next chapter of WarnerMedia’s storied success.”

There have been some signs of tension between Stankey and other WarnerMedia executives, including reports of an awkward town hall meeting at HBO after AT&T acquired what was then known as Time Warner. Then there was the departure of HBO CEO Richard Plepler, who subsequently signed an exclusive production deal with Apple TV.

HBO Max — which will include HBO itself, along with a broader library of Warner Bros. films, original content aimed at younger viewers and more — is likely to face additional challenges. Although it builds on HBO’s success with HBO Now, WarnerMedia’s big bet is coming relatively late to the streaming wars. And at $14.99 per month, it has a higher price tag than most other services.

Analyst Matthew Ball suggested that with WarnerMedia planning to eventually launch a lower-priced, ad-supported version of HBO Max, this could be the end of the company’s traditional pay TV model:

AT&T, meanwhile, is essentially raiding all of TBS, TNT, and TruTV’s most promising original series as HBO Max exclusives, plus it’s taking exclusive digital rights these networks’ most valuable reruns (e.g. Impractical Jokers). Some shows are still premiering on these linear networks — at least for now — such as the upcoming Snowpiercer TV series (which will be TNT’s most expensive show ever). However, these are expected to “re-premiere” shortly thereafter on HBO Max, potentially as early as the next day (which essentially makes them HBO Max Originals). …

And by the time HBO Max launches a low-cost AVOD service in 2021, it’ll be unclear why anyone would pay to access any of WarnerMedia’s content via linear and ad-heavy Pay-TV channels.

 

Spotify and Warner Music Group renew their global licensing deal, resolve issue in India

Spotify and Warner Music Group have renewed their global licensing partnership, the two said on Wednesday, confirming that the giant music label’s songs will now be available on the Sweden-headquartered firm’s platform in India.

In a joint statement, the two companies said, “Spotify and Warner Music Group are pleased to announce a renewed global licensing partnership. This expanded deal covers countries where Spotify is available today, as well as additional markets. The two companies look forward to collaborating on impactful global initiatives for Warner artists and songwriters, and working together to grow the music industry over the long term.”

The companies did not share financial terms of the deal.

The move comes months after Spotify signed a licensing agreement with Warner Music Group’s music publish arm Warner Chappell in India to put an end to their months-long legal battle. Warner Chappell, like other publishing companies, represents songwriters, while record labels work with the recording artist and producer.

Warner Music, one of the world’s top three music labels, had sued Spotify days before the music streaming service was to launch in India, one of the world’s biggest entertainment markets. Spotify argued that it was using an Indian rule that permits radio stations to offer songs from Chappell Music.

Today’s announcement will result in thousands of songs from artists such as Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran and Cardi B and bands such as Coldplay and Linkin Park — all of whom are represented by Warner Music — to be available for the first time to Spotify users and subscribers in India. Spotify launched in India early last year.

The unavailability of songs from these popular artists was a major disadvantage for Spotify in India, a very competitive market with dozens of players. Most music streaming services including Spotify, Apple Music, and recent entrant Resso have aggressively priced their premium subscriptions in India, charging less than $2 a month.

According to industry estimates, more than 200 million Indians stream music online. Times Internet-owned Gaana leads the market with over 150 million monthly active users. But very few are willing to pay yet — which explains why Spotify launched a free ad-supported service in India that offers users in the country access to the full catalog.

Bloomberg reported in December that YouTube Music / Premium, had amassed over 800,000 subscribers in India, more than Spotify, which has not disclosed its India figures.

According to research firm Statista, music streaming services in India will clock about $244 million in revenue this year, compared to the much mature U.S. market, where they are estimated to generate $4.5 billion this year.

It hasn’t been easy for Spotify to renew its deals with music labels. According to Financial Times, music labels were negotiating to secure a guaranteed minimum percentage of Spotify’s subscription revenue, “regardless of how much music users consume versus podcasts or other content.”

Wide Open School organizes free educational resources to help parents and teachers homeschool

Nearly 300 million kids are missing school worldwide because of the coronavirus outbreak, including some 54 million in the U.S. alone. That’s left parents scrambling for resources to help continue their children’s education, often while also working from home themselves — an almost insurmountable challenge. Today, the non-profit media organization Common Sense is launching a site to help parents called Wide Open School (WideOpenSchool.org), which combines the best educational resources for publishers, nonprofits, and education companies in one place.

At launch, this free resource includes content from the American Federation of Teachers, Amplify, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Head Start, Khan Academy, National Geographic, Noggin, PBS, Scholastic, Sesame Workshop, Time for Kids, XQ Institute, and even YouTube.

All the content offered through Wide Open School is freely available.

But it’s not just a list of helpful websites. Instead, Wide Open School actually programs a full school day for the child by grade level, to ensure they’re getting a mix of educational material that aligns with what their day would have been when attending school.

For example, a 4th grader may be pointed to Prodigy’s math games, YouTube art tutorials, and Khan Academy reading resources in the morning, then instructed to read a book, draw, or listen to music during their screen-free lunch break. In the afternoon, they may take social studies via Google Earth, study science through Amplify, and take P.E. by way of GoNoodle.

The site even suggests evening activities that can be done as a family, like bedtime reading or movies to stream, among other things.

In addition, Wide Open School offers a guide to getting started with learning at home, a collection of virtual field trips, a collection with resources for art and music, and one with resources for emotional well-being — the latter especially critical at a time when anxiety levels are high among parents and kids alike.

There’s also a section dedicated to parents of children with special needs

Everything is organized in a colorful grid with picture images so it can be easily used by children on their own.

For struggling parents new to homeschooling, a resource like this will likely be welcome.

However, Common Sense is opening up the tools to educators, as well. Though many U.S. school systems already offer their students a set of digital resources through direct relationships with educational companies, like Nat Geo or Scholastic, those resources were typically meant to supplement the education the child was receiving at school, not replace it. There may still be large holes in the child’s education that aren’t being addressed.

Common Sense says on the new Wide Open School website has been curated for educational quality.

This taps into the organization’s key strength, as its focus has always been on promoting safe technology and media for children. Today, its main website is known for its trusted reviews of TV, movies, books, games, and apps that help parents understand a given piece of content’s age-appropriateness, as well as concerns with the title in question, if any.

To create the new Wide Open School, Common Sense was able to tap into its existing understanding of the educational media available for families, and then organize it by grade level.

Common Sense says it also worked with key distribution and technology partners Apple, Google, Zoom, Comcast, Salesforce, and Zoom, which have also suggested tools and resources, to ensure they’re aware of and can access the content.

“The coronavirus pandemic has elevated the need for quality learning materials all in one place for families and educators, and Common Sense is proud that trusted experts and partners have joined together to launch Wide Open School so quickly,” said James P. Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense, in a statement about the launch.

“Many organizations have moved swiftly to respond to this crisis with incredible resources and special offers for educators and families. We wanted to use our nearly 20 years of experience as an expert reviewer and curator to create the go-to source of quality content that will provide educators with the support they need to shift to remote teaching and a one-stop, trusted place for families to engage kids who are now learning from home,” he added.

Though many U.S. schools are moving towards remote learning, some aren’t yet ready or fully rolled out. And even those schools that have shifted online aren’t necessarily programming the equivalent of a full school day for the students. That can be difficult for parents working from home, as kids complete their more limited educational activities, then look to be entertained. Left on their own, that’s meant full days of gaming or binging YouTube — much to the exacerbation of parents who don’t consider coronavirus cancellations just an early start to summer break.

Wide Open School can supplement whatever remote learning is taking place, as well, or can be used by teachers who are creating online lessons for the first time.

The new website launched publicly today, but is still considered a beta — meaning it’s not the final product.

Common Sense is still working to expand the site and is forging additional educational partnerships with media and education companies, nonprofits, and teachers, in order to add more content, it says.

The site will be available across platforms, including mobile, desktop and TV, in order to allow everyone — even low-income families — to access its resources.

It’s working to add other resources to aid low-income families as well, including information about accessing free or discounted broadband services, as well as resources for more urgent needs to address health, hunger, shelter, and psychological needs.

Roku’s update adds support for Spanish voice commands, visual search results and more

Roku announced today it’s preparing to roll out the next version of its operating system, Roku OS 9.3, which powers its popular media players, TVs, and other devices. The flagship feature of this latest release is the introduction of Spanish Language Roku Voice support — meaning consumers will be able to speak their voice commands in Spanish to do things like launch channels, search for content, or control media playback. Other notable additions in Roku OS 9.3 include search enhancements, like the new visual search results, and an updated Roku mobile app.

The support for Spanish language voice command will launch in the U.S. and Mexico. In addition to asking Roku to launch channels by name, play or pause or otherwise control the media, voice commands can be used to seek out content by title, actor or genre.

Plus, when those search results appear, they’re now going to be presented in a more visual fashion, starting in the U.S.

Before, search results were a list of matching titles. Following the update, they’re going to be categorized rows of content, including the relevant movies, shows, short-form entertainment and more. These will include results from Roku’s own media hub The Roku Channel and other places to watch, as well as purchases and rentals, sorted by price.

U.S. users will also be able to playback content from search for over 50+ streaming channels, when possible, after issuing a voice command to find a TV show or movie. That is, the content will just launch and start playing instead of presenting you with search results to choose from.

Like other streamers have done in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Roku has added easier access to live news to its platform. In the U.S., voice commands like “show me the news” or “play the news” will direct users to a Roku Zone with news channels or just start streaming live content from ABC News within The Roku Channel. You can also say “Play the news on…” to launch the named news channel and remember that preference for future commands.

The Roku mobile app is also getting an update with this release.

The app will feature a new navigation bar at the top of the screen when users are connected to a Roku device. This bar will provide easier access to Roku Search, a shortcut to the remote control screen, and a new icon that displays a dropdown menu of devices for switching between the different Roku devices in their home they want to control. There are also quick access icons for launching mobile app features — like browse or launching recent channels —  without exiting the remote screen.

A few updates for international markets include an improved Roku Voice experience in Canada, Ireland, and the U.K.. This introduces a wider variety of commands for search, like “Show me…” or “I want to watch…” These markets will now have media playback controls and device control (e.g. “turn on closed captions), too.

In Canada, Mexico, and the U.K., users will be able to control their Roku players and TVs using Alexa devices or Google Assistant devices.

In more minor changes, Roku has organized Home Screen wallpapers and screensavers under the “Theme” menu and introduced “Theme Packs,” which offer both a wallpaper and screensaver together. The devices will also see performance improvements, specifically reduction to boot times, faster launch times for a number of channels, a more responsive Home Screen, and faster navigation.

For Roku audio devices, including the Roku Smart Soundbar and Roku TV, users will be able to access for soundbar settings from the TV interface; pair external devices (like a phone) for playback via Bluetooth; or pair other Roku audio products to the soundbar, like the Wireless Subwoofer or Wireless Speakers.

The update will roll out to select players in April and to all other streaming players, including audio devices, in the weeks ahead. Roku TVs will get the update in later months.

Substack offers $100K in grants for independent writers

Substack is taking several steps to support the writers and publications using its newsletter platform.

After all, just as writers and newsrooms are starting to build real businesses on Substack, the COVID-19 pandemic is dealing a huge financial blow to the media industry.

In response, the startup says it will donate $100,000 in grants — which will range from $500 to $5,000 in cash, “no strings attached” — to independent writers who are experiencing financial hardship. Applications open today and will close next week, on April 7.

The startup also says it will waive its 10 percent fee for publications if they donate their earnings to the effort against COVID-19 (that could mean donating to nonprofits, or to businesses that are threatened by the pandemic). The initial waiver is for one month, but it could be extended for up to three months.

Lastly, Substack publications will soon be able to customize their subscription pages, so that readers do more to support their favorite writers. For example, a publication could add a “super supporters” option that allows subscribers to pay even more than an annual subscription price.

In a blog post, CEO Chris Best said:

Unfortunately, we … know that writers and creatives are among the hardest hit by the economic downturn and are experiencing decreasing job opportunities, canceled projects, and pay cuts. Yet while advertising budgets get slashed, readers are more eager than ever to directly support the creators they care about because they believe, like we do, that journalism and the arts are more necessary than ever in times of crisis.