What password sharers think about a stricter streaming future

A crackdown on passwords hits a nerve for long-time streamers, and muddles of the future of fragmented TV

Madison Ketcham / Illustration for The Washington Post
Madison Ketcham / Illustration for The Washington Post

Rachel Wenitsky is an obsessive rule follower, something she says she’s been famous for her whole life. But there is one rule that she – along with at least 100 million other people – is completely comfortable with: She shares passwords for streaming services with family members outside her home.

After years of tacitly allowing password sharing, Netflix is ​​cracking down on splitting a log in with anyone who doesn’t live full time at the same address. For people like Wenitsky, a TV writer in Los Angeles, it’s a step too far.

“If every streaming service for having the price to pay is Netflix sending the full force of their security to keep my house from sharing my password with my mom, so be it,” says Wenitsky.

Netflix is ​​not going door-to-door just yet, but it says it’s coming after those who share passwords and is testing a program in Peru, Costa Rica and Chile to get people who have a password to pay for their own streaming. This is the latest sign that the way we watch and pay for TV is at a crossroads. With inflation at a 40-year high and global markets remain volatile and there is talk of a recession, consumers are rethinking how much money they want to sink into subscriptions. The top eight streaming services would now cost about $ 60 a month combined If you had the most inexpensive version of each, inching closer to what cable costs.

To cope, sharing passwords with friends and family has become a mainstream practice. At the same time, streaming companies are trying to compensate for their own financial struggles, with layoffs, price increases, more ad options or simply shutting down. The pandemic was a boon for the streaming companies, but now they have to compete with real-world activities again – box office hits are back, bars and parties are packed, and workers are returning to offices.

The result is an industry falling out of sync with how people use its products. It’s no longer just a cheaper, ad-free alternative to cable, but a crowded field. Netflix’s new zeal for password enforcement breaks the seal on something the streaming companies have long avoided: being clear about sharing policies and enforcement, leaving millions of TV fans confused.

“If it feels like a structural thing these companies have to iron out, but don’t think it’s the responsibility of the consumer,” says Ned Riseley, an actor and singer in Brooklyn, NY, who sings about a song with passwords with Wenitsky. General Chat Chat Lounge

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Sharing is already mainstream

For people like Ana Mardoll who have replaced cable with a delicate combination of TV streaming services they pay for, borrow or trade, the prospect of cracking down on shared passwords hits a nerve.

“Look, everyone understands that everything costs more money these days. Server space, streaming costs, licensing; I didn’t complain when Netflix upped their prices, “Mardoll said. “But then they [Netflix] They’re going after sharing and I see them making the same bad assumption that companies always make: that every ‘shared’ household is a ‘lost sale.’ “

Mardoll started off saving huge amounts of money by switching to streaming, but is now creeping toward a cable-sized expense. He went from pricey satellite TV to Netflix DVDs by mail, then added in Prime Video, Disney Plus, Hulu and RiffTrax. He has been a paying Netflix customer since 2013, when a standard account cost $ 7.99 – now it’s $ 15.49. Mardoll shares the account with two other households that didn’t or couldn’t pay for it on their own.

Other companies have been mum about their next move, but media industry experts predict they could follow Netflix’s lead.

“They thought there was endless growth but when everyone hit a wall, they were going to follow the same Netflix playbook,” said Michael Nathanson, a senior research analyst at MoffettNathanson, an independent research firm based in New York. “They’re going to do the same thing.”

When they launch, streaming companies are focusing on using those eyeballs – paid or unpaid – to spread the word about new shows, Nathanson said. The more word-of-mouth chatter a series gets, the more people will sign up to see what the fuss is about.

Sharing was OK, until it wasn’t

It makes sense that sharing feels OK to so many. The streaming companies have been given an accounting wink and a pass for years, if not outright encouraging it.

Last September, Hulu’s official Twitter account said: “Our love language is sharing a Hulu subscription.” Asked about the tweet, spokeswoman Kristie Adler described the account as playful and not all of the company’s social media posts are meant for literal interpretation.

In 2015, Richard Plepler, then CEO of HBO, said password sharing had no real effect on the business: “What we’re doing in business is building addicts, building video addicts.” At the CES in 2016, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the company “loved” that people share Netflix accounts and described it as “a positive thing, not a negative thing,” according to CNET.

Hulu, which is owned by Disney, says it has technology to flag suspicious activity, but it declined to provide specifics on what qualifies or what enforcement it uses. Other companies have similarly vague policies.

The lack of enforcement is, by design, created a culture of account sharing between close friends and family. It has also led to distant sharing among friends of friends, co-workers, exes, and Airbnb guests and hosts.

Sara from New York has been using the HBO Max log-in of a man she met on a dating app and just went out once. She declined to use her last name out of fear of changing her password. Another borrowed a streaming log-in from a friend while recovering from surgery and kept using it.

“At one point during the pandemic we had a friend’s Criterion password,” said Riseley, the actor, who shares some of his own accounts with family members. “We watched two French movies, then it disappeared. That was an exciting one to have for a little bit. “

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The risk of going after sharing

It’s not the insistence on keeping a subscription in the family that gets Ariane Broome-Hopkins – it’s defining the companies what a family is based on a primary address. “They can’t assume they understand the circumstances of this person’s situation because of the metadata on their phone,” said Broome-Hopkins, a 36-year-old customer care concierge. “Families are not as simple as they used to be.”

Broome-Hopkins’ partner is living in Austria, and she is close relatives and chosen family members separated across the country and the world. For now, she’ll continue to share Apple TV Plus with her sister and her partner, borrowing her best friend from Netflix, and sharing Disney Plus with a family of two kids who can’t afford it on their own.

Companies already have tools in place to limit the excessive usage that can come with an overused password. Some have caps on a number of streams that can take place at a time, limits the number of devices that can be logged in, and a set number of profiles. Few of the companies would say whether they already enforced sharing between people who know each other or if they planned to start.

While other streaming services are still staying tight-lipped, Netflix has been unusually open about its strategy. For example, Netflix is ​​using IP addresses to determine what devices are connecting to its service and from what location. This is how the company already knows that 100 million people are watching someone else’s account.

Streaming services may have embracing stricter rules or more ad options including the hope of getting more paid subscribers, but it can also push people away.

“Netflix is ​​the default. It is there, it is easy to use, it does not cost that much. If you’re any less easy to use, if you’re any less there, I have other places to go, “said Adrienne Figus, a project manager at an academic library in Massachusetts who once owned her own video rental store. “Purchase, borrow, library, pirate stuff – I could get it.”

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