For years, we’ve heard that the pay TV industry is getting serious about the problem of password sharing.
Tom Rutledge, the chairman and CEO of cable company Charter Communications, has made a point of speaking out against sharing TV app logins with friends and relatives since at least 2015. He’s also been encouraging TV networks to work harder on stopping it. A couple years ago, Viacom agreed to cooperate with Charter on preventing password sharing, and just last week, Charter announced a similar agreement with Disney as part of a new distribution pact for its Spectrum TV service. In both cases, a wave of headlines followed, suggesting that the days of mooching someone else’s HBO GO or ESPN login would soon be over.
But in talking to TV networks and other industry players, it’s clear that a major crackdown isn’t imminent. The TV business remains divided on whether password sharing is a serious problem, and even the players that want to fight it aren’t eager to apply draconian countermeasures. Meanwhile, experts say that new methods of enforcement against password sharing are still at least a year or two away, and when they finally arrive, they’ll be a lot subtler than you might expect.
The problem with stream limits
Today, most streaming video services try to mitigate password sharing through two blunt methods: they can limit how many devices per account are allowed to stream video at the same time, and they can force users to reenter their passwords more often.
Neither of these methods work particularly well, at least for the kind of casual sharing that’s pervasive among friends and family members. A survey earlier this year by Parks Associates found that 18% of U.S. broadband homes were sharing passwords for video apps, up from 16% in 2017. That’s despite stricter limits from networks like Disney, which originally allowed five streams at a time in its apps but now allows just three, and no change in enforcement measures from stand-alone services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Forcing more frequent logins is also, at best, a mild deterrent. If you visit a friend’s house and log into a TV network app (also known as a TV Everywhere app) on a Roku player there, an expiring login would prevent your pal from continuing to use your account indefinitely. But if you shared the actual password, there’s nothing to stop that friend from logging in repeatedly. With features like single sign-on for Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Roku, making use of a shared password is now easier than it’s ever been.
To some extent, this is all just the system working as intended. TV networks and providers don’t want to make logging in burdensome for legitimate customers, which is why many of them have embraced systems like single sign-on and don’t stop customers from watching outside the home. The example of logging into an app at a friend’s house, for instance, is a legitimate use of the TV Everywhere service that networks aren’t interested in stopping.
The challenge, then, is to come up with new strategies that don’t hurt paying customers.
“In reality, this is supposed to be a frictionless environment where it’s supposed to make the end user feel like they’re getting the most out of that subscription,” says David Kline, Viacom’s executive vice president and chief information and technology officer. “When you go after them in a way that becomes negative, it gets friction-full, and then that leaves a bad taste.”
In response to the rise of password sharing, companies that handle authentication for TV providers have been hawking new ways to rein it in, beyond just tighter limits on simultaneous streams.
One strategy, being pushed by Synamedia, involves looking for patterns of usage to predict the likelihood of password sharing. If someone is repeatedly streaming from a location outside the home, at different times of the day, and through different TV network apps, those might be strong indicators that the person isn’t an account holder. The TV provider could then decide what kind of action to take.
“You can identify the subscriber base for its propensity to share the content, and then you focus on the ones that have the highest propensity of sharing content,” says Jean-Marc Racine, Synamedia’s chief product officer.
Another company called Synacor (no relation to Synamedia) is pushing for stricter limits on the total number of devices that can use a TV network app after logging in from outside the home, separate from the number of simultaneous streams allowed. TV operators could then provide a dashboard for customers, allowing them to deactivate devices that exceed the limit.
“Once you are able to fingerprint and register the family of devices in a particular household, you can actually give control back to the household as well,” says Synacor CEO Himesh Bhise.
Still, getting the industry to adopt these kinds of solutions could take a while.
Synamedia’s Jean-Marc Racine says TV operators are still mostly in the information-gathering stage on password sharing, and he believes it’ll be a year or two until they start taking action. Even then, it’s unclear whether they’ll actually punish offenders. Instead, they might just remind customers that their logins are in use elsewhere and perhaps take the opportunity to upsell additional services.
“Operators are quite eager to appear relatively relaxed with password sharing,” he says. “It’s a softer approach, and you attract more subscribers, and you grow more revenue.”
Meanwhile, no one’s yet implementing Synacor’s solution of stricter device limits, and Bhise says the reasons are more business-related than technical. Building that kind of authentication system would be a big change for TV providers and networks, and they still need to be convinced that it’s worth the trouble.
“The technology tools are available,” he says. “I think this is a little bit of cost and a little bit of effort.”
The underlying issue here is that not everyone in the TV business is as zealous about dealing with password sharing as Charter’s Tom Rutledge. (Charter declined to comment for this story.) In 2014, former HBO CEO Richard Plepler famously said that password sharing was a “terrific marketing vehicle for the next generation of viewers” and otherwise had no impact on the company’s business. HBO has continued to reiterate that position over the years.
“I would note that we do have a limit of three concurrent streams as a preventative measure,” HBO spokesman Chris Willard says via email, “but otherwise, though we do closely watch for abuse of usage, the sharing is still relatively small and has no economic impact.”
In 2016, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that password sharing is “something you have to learn to live with,” because a lot of it was “legitimate” sharing between family members. David Wells, Netflix’s CFO at the time, also said there was a marketing benefit for less-legitimate uses. “We could crack down on it, but you wouldn’t suddenly turn all those folks to paid users,” he said.
Dan Rayburn, a streaming video analyst for Frost & Sullivan, has another theory for the lax enforcement of password sharing: In a lot of cases, TV network apps have advertising, so even if some viewers aren’t paying for TV service, the networks benefit from having more eyeballs. He also believes, as HBO and Netflix have suggested, that password sharing has promotional benefits.
“There’s no technical problem as far as preventing password sharing,” Rayburn says. “It’s a business decision.”
Besides, password sharing isn’t nearly as troublesome for cable TV networks as it is for stand-alone services like Netflix. According to Parks Associates, just 8% of U.S. broadband households admitted to sharing pay TV app logins with others, compared to 13% for online video services and 18% combined. If cable networks aren’t yet losing a lot of money to password sharing, they may not feel much pressure to speed up enforcement.
None of which is to say that a crackdown will never happen, but finding a way to do so without annoying legitimate customers and causing more cable TV defections is delicate work. Viacom’s David Kline believes it’ll just take a little more time.
“We are getting better, smarter, stronger, more intelligent, and being more attentive to the consumer so that friction goes away,” he says.