A Roku is a digital set-top box that works on the Internet to provide you with digital content. It's a small box, about the size of a paperback book but square, that connects wirelessly or through Ethernet and serves TV out via an HDMI cable.
I made the mistake of purchasing this particular device believing the hype that accompanied it by an earnest young man who promised me tons, and I mean TONS of channels.
At first I thought it would be the equivalent of the World's Greatest TV system. I could watch BBC. Not BBC America, but BBC. Maybe the CBC in Canada? Australian TV? Channel 4? Sky? Perhaps learn enough Spanish to watch some Spanish television (as opposed to Telemundo) or even pick up local affiliates, in the same way that iTunes lets me listen to radio stations from markets I don't live in.
All of this was hopelessly dashed when I was prompted for a credit card as soon as I plugged it in. "Only to be used when purchasing digital content". But every channel had a week or so "free trial".
When I browsed through the channels, my heart sank even further. The only way I could watch, say, Fox (for NFL games) was to be a pre-existing cable customer. So I couldn't ditch cable to watch the occasional game or the occasional guilty Family Guy episode - I'd have to buy cable, but for some insane reason prefer to stream it through this box. There was no BBC or CBC or ATV, no Fox, no Lifetime, none of the channels cable offered. There was however Vietnamese programming or Hindi television or Urdu, so in theory this would be a worthwhile investment for people with parents from the old country who didn't have any friends or English speaking ability.
When I was a youth, I was introduced to a fascinating, fascinating movie named UHF. Launched at the time at which Pay TV was trying to get traction, it spoke of a young, plucky TV channel with odd programming and very low ratings - that gets turned around by a breakout hit. Life has a way of imitaing art. Tom Green was probably inspired by Wayne's World, and Comedy Channel would be nowhere near what it is now but for South Park - and the notion that extraterrestrial life hates corporate content too and wants it killed with fire spoke to a can-do generation that was close enough to the punk ethos to pull it off. But would that promise be fulfilled with the possibility of consuming what amounts to a narrowcasted Pay Television? Would someone look at this technology and say "with consumer electronics I could genuinely pull off a UHF?"
There were five MMA channels. Three bowhunting channels. Four Yoga channels. Four Z-grade horror movie channels. Surfing through them, I found absolutely nothing watchable. Back in the day, B-grade movies were awful but there needed to be a certain level of technical competence in actually framing and photographing a scene required to produce a film- but with the advent of digital video and consumer level versions of Final Cut Pro, what we have is non-actors shuffling through deliberately awful material shot by technical incompetents - not trying to make art and failing but trying to make dreck and failing yet further. And all were willing to let me watch for a week free, but wanted on average $15 a month thereafter.
With an absolutely morbid fascination, I clued in to one station which advertised a movie named, and I swear I am not making it up, "Return to Blood F-rt Lake". Which meant that not only did a group of people get together and make a movie with a juvenile title including "Blood F-rt Lake", it was a sequel to a movie with "Blood F-rt Lake" in the title. I got past the first few minutes, which seemed to involve a man stabbed in the abdomen with an ear of corn while defecating into a lake (he describes the latter with far more detail than the former). Surreally, it turned into a discussion of how the man running to his aid was actually the owner of a horror T-shirt manufacturer, and the guy stops his dying monologue to get into a discussion of why certain titles are immortalized in shirt form and why some aren't. It turns out that the filmmaker literally makes these films as a way to advertise that he, in fact, makes and sells horror-themed T-shirts for a living. Apparently if I wanted to watch this film ad-free it would cost me a dollar, and if I wanted to own it it would cost me $5.
I declined either transaction, and I also declined watching any further part of this film.
I did find, however, one piece of content worth watching - a made-by-a-group-of-friends Muppet affair about an orange Yeti who takes a job as a broadcaster in Transylvania in order to repay his student loans. It was cleverly written, funny without being coarse, the puppetry was on par with Jim Henson, and it was decidedly entertaining. I could not find any reference to the title on the box, nor on the channel's website, though many people were in fact asking, on a Google-cached but no longer existant "social media" page for the reorganising channel, just what in the heck it was called.
That was probably the breakout hit, and the momentum got lost.
I returned the box three hours later for a full refund. There is so much potential in this technology but it isn't there yet. That it can do Netflix and Vudu is irrelevant - so can my Blu-Ray player. What needs to happen for this technology to take off is for there to be a very real, very vibrant ecosystem of content. How it solves that chicken and egg problem is to be seen.