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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > November 2023

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Vol. 43 No. 9 — November 2023
FEATURE

Circulating Roku Devices with Premium Streaming Apps
by Jeff Reid and Holly Richards

Currently, we offer 10 different premium streaming services with 216 Roku devices in our collection.
In the past few years, multinational media companies began changing how they release their content and material. Instead of releasing various TV programs and films in a traditional format—on television or in movie theaters—companies started releasing their content exclusively to their streaming app of choice. This new model left libraries in an unfortunate position. They were unable to bring highly marketed content to the patrons in their service area, as their traditional vendors of physical media and digital media were left out of this process.

At the Dayton Metro Library (DML) in Dayton, Ohio, we began to research how to bring titles such as Disney’s The Mandalorian and Apple’s CODA to our patrons. We were unable to subscribe to streaming services and distribute login information to our service population. That would violate the terms of service for these streaming providers and give users of these services a steady stream of errors. By giving patrons our usernames and passwords, this also had the potential to make our payment systems visible to the public.

After researching this problem, we found that a few small libraries in the Midwest were circulating Roku streaming dongles that came logged into streaming services. They were not password-sharing. These devices came with those usernames and passwords already entered into the apps. The library was sharing a physical object, not a password. Patrons simply had to plug the device into their television, link it to a reliable broadband Wi-Fi signal, and stream the available content immediately. DML took this model provided by others—such as the Fremont Public Library in Mundelein, Ill.—and expanded on it.

Why Roku?

There were several reasons why we decided to go with a Roku device instead of others. We rejected the idea of offering an Amazon Fire TV Stick or other Amazon products. As the owner of Prime Video, Amazon has had tense relationships with other media companies, sometimes even removing its competitors’ apps from its streaming dongles. We wanted to make content reliable for our patrons; Amazon could not guarantee that.

We nixed using Google’s Chromecast streaming dongle for other reasons. Some models of the Chromecast device require that patrons interact with these devices with their own smartphone or tablet. That was a prerequisite we did not want to make every one of our patrons adhere to.

In the end, it was the reliability of the Roku brand, the ability of its remotes to take voice commands, and the ability of the devices to retain login information for long periods of time that helped us make our decision.

The Roku Collection Offerings

DML’s Roku device lending program was launched to patrons in March 2022. One hundred and eighty-four Roku Express 4K+ devices were made available to patrons, and each one was linked to a specific premium streaming service. Currently, we offer 10 different premium streaming services with 216 Roku devices in our collection, and they are as follows:

  • Acorn TV (12 devices)
  • Apple TV+ (30 devices)
  • BET+ (18 devices)
  • Discovery+ (24 devices)
  • Disney+ (28 devices)
  • Hulu (18 devices)
  • Max (32 devices)
  • Paramount+ (18 devices)
  • Peacock Premium (18 devices)
  • Prime Video (18 devices)

Each Roku comes with only one of those premium streaming services and access to the following free or ad-supported streaming services:

  • Tubi
  • PlutoTV
  • PBS (logged into the limited free account, not the more robust Passport account)
  • PBS Kids
  • The Roku Channel
  • Kidoodle.TV
  • HappyKids
  • Filmrise
  • Freevee
  • Crackle
  • YouTube

By providing multiple additional streaming channels, we are offering our patrons reasons to check out these devices, even if the premium service does not hold much appeal. As of August 2023, the combined circulation of these Roku devices was 4,825, without any marketing efforts on the library’s part. To moderate demand, we have only let patrons know about this service through word-of-mouth and staff interactions. We also allow for a 3-week checkout period and up to five renewals if there is no waitlist.

Simultaneous Streams

The number of Roku devices tied to each streaming service is limited by simultaneous streams. This determines how many people can stream from the same streaming account at the same time. The number of simultaneous streams is set by each separate company. Apple TV+ allows for six simultaneous streams. As the aforementioned list shows, DML circulates 30 Roku devices with Apple TV+. That means we have five Apple TV+ accounts, and each of them is logged into by six different Roku devices.

The amount of simultaneous streams per service are as follows:

  • Acorn TV (four simultaneous streams)
  • Apple TV+ (six simultaneous streams)
  • BET+ (three simultaneous streams)
  • Discovery+ (four simultaneous streams)
  • Disney+ (four simultaneous streams)
  • Hulu (two simultaneous streams)
  • Max (four simultaneous streams)
  • Paramount+ (three simultaneous streams)
  • Peacock Premium (three simultaneous streams)
  • Prime Video (three simultaneous streams)

Digital Security

Roku, as a company, makes money in three primary ways. First, it sells the physical devices that we circulate. Second, it has the Roku Channel that generates revenue through ads. Third, its main revenue comes from users signing up for premium streaming services. For instance, if a user signs up for a Paramount+ subscription on a Roku device, Roku gets a cut of that subscription fee. Apple and Amazon have similar storefronts alongside their streaming services. While Roku wants to make it as easy as possible for users to sign up for premium subscriptions, this does not work with our library service model. Therefore, we have set up roadblocks so that our patrons are unable to do so.

The primary way we have stopped patrons from accessing extra services and content was to never link a credit card to any of our Roku devices. When creating a Roku account, Roku asks that users give the company their credit card information so future charges can be streamlined. As we have no plans for future charges, we ignore this part of the sign-up process.

To dissuade patrons from giving any of these media companies their own credit card information, each Roku account and each premium streaming account has been locked with PINs. No patron can use a library Roku device to order additional services. Because we never entered credit card information directly into the Roku devices that we circulate, we have signed up for each of these streaming service accounts via the customer portal found on these services’ websites. Then, we use the username and passwords created on these websites to log into these accounts on the Roku devices. This not only gives a level of protection against charges from Roku, but it also allows the library to go to the streaming services’ customer service options if concerns arise and not to a third party such as Roku, which we would have to do if we subscribed to the service through Roku. It keeps the system more direct and gives us more control.

Billing

The Roku devices themselves were bought using the library’s tax-exempt status. However, since the accounts that are available to the library for these streaming services are the same customer-facing accounts available to all consumers, we have not found a way to get tax-exempt status for these subscriptions. All of the streaming subscriptions are paid by a single credit card. Although we have multiple accounts with all 10 of the streaming services, a single card has been enough to pay for them all.

When possible, we have signed up for annual subscriptions for these streaming services. This comes with the benefit of a small discount on the annual rate and makes it easier for our finance department to reconcile the credit card statement month to month. For every charge on the credit card, we send documentation either in the form of a full invoice or a payment history screen to finance. By shifting these charges to an annual choice as much as possible, this lessens the monthly burden for everyone.

Missing and Overdue Roku Devices

Sometimes, Roku devices go missing or are kept too long by patrons. Whenever that happens, we turn off that device remotely. The library is not paying for subscription services to lost, missing, or overdue devices.

Each Roku device is logged into a specific Roku account to be set up. We made a different Roku account for each streaming account. Each streaming account also needs its own email address. For example, we have six Paramount+ accounts. We therefore have six Roku accounts tied to those six Paramount+ accounts. As each Paramount+ account allows for three simultaneous streams, we have three Roku devices tied to each of those six Roku accounts. If one of those Roku devices goes missing, we log into that device’s Roku account, scroll down to the list of linked Roku devices, and select “Remove device” next to the missing device. The missing Roku device is now unlinked from the library’s Roku account and unusable. Whoever took it could reset it themselves, but that device would remain removed from library services and subscriptions. If it is returned, we could relink it to the library’s Roku account and return it to circulation.

Netflix

One of the first premium streaming services we offered our patrons was Netflix. However, Netflix’s 2023 algorithm changes resulted in our inability to reliably provide this service to our patrons. Even though Netflix advertised that its premium plan allowed for as many as four simultaneous streams, its siloing of those streams to a certain IP address meant that moving linked Roku devices around our communities was no longer an option. On June 12, 2023, we made the difficult decision to stop offering Netflix. We plan to reassess our ability to provide Netflix to our patrons in the future if that algorithm ever changes again.

Staff Time

Aside from the price of the devices and the subscriptions, the biggest cost for this project is staff time.

  • Turning on a new Roku device takes about 40 minutes.
  • Relinking a Roku device after it has been unlinked due to being overdue takes about 20 minutes.
  • After setup, staffers devoted an average of 5.4 hours a week to collection maintenance and financial issues.
  • Approximately 10 Roku devices need to be relinked a week.

Resetting devices is centralized. Patrons must wait for them to be reset to library standards. Usually, this only takes 1 or 2 days. Centralized control of the Roku resets was done for a few reasons. The Wi-Fi at the branch level was found to have interference between the Roku devices themselves and the remotes. This was due to some of the firewalls put up on our public Wi-Fi network. Also, by not sharing passwords even among staff, this lessens the chances of password leaks. Finally, keeping the passwords centralized lets us stay in line with the streaming services’ terms of service. We are not password-sharing in any way. Creation of a spreadsheet with detailed information about each Roku device is imperative. Documenting every piece of information—device serial number, Roku account username and password, library barcode, premium subscription username and password, PINs, and more—is vital to keeping the collection controlled.

Conclusion

This is a huge project. For DML, it involved almost every department in the library. It has reached every corner of the library but has become a service that patrons actively look for and appreciate. This collection can be scaled up or down depending on your library size and budget. We have found Rokus to be a creative and equitable streaming service solution to the slow decline of DVD usage in our library system.
Holly RichardsJeff Reid


Jeff Reid
(L) is a collection development librarian with the Dayton Metro Library. He proposed and launched the Roku collection. Before working in collection development, Reid spent 13 years as a teen services librarian at a branch of the Dayton Metro Library.

Holly Richards (R) is the technical services director at the Dayton Metro Library. She has worked in public libraries for 26 years.