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‘Free’ Streaming

Not all streaming is meant to be shared – or least not shared with dozens of strangers around the world. Cable companies and content providers are concerned about lost fees as access credentials to programming are increasingly abused. They’re cracking down on piracy.

Stealing service has been a problem since the first electrical wires and meters were installed more than 100 years ago. For cable and content providers, it became an issue when the first cable wires were strung up. The problem has grown as technology has developed more content and more ways to get it. Putting aside the issue of whether it’s all overpriced, it costs money to develop and deliver the content we love to watch, and too much of it is “falling off the back of an electronic truck.”

We can watch content for free on our TVs when they receive broadcast signals. But for the most part, the only people who watch broadcast TV are those who have cut the cord and stream through their TVs on their internal Wi-Fi or wired networks. For them, a TV is a device, just like a tablet, wireless phone or computer.

Cable providers have relationships with content providers that enable subscribers to stream cable-delivered content or simply stream it from the content providers. You get a username and password, and you’re good to go. You can even share your account with others, and almost all of us have done it at one time or another, especially with Netflix or Amazon Prime. Some providers encourage it.

Unfortunately, some people have taken sharing too far. The content industry has been OK with sharing info with a few friends or family members, but the problems arise when those friends and family members start sharing access with their friends and family. It’s all gone viral, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Every provider who issues usernames and passwords also has the means to track who is accessing content and where they’re watching it. They expect that subscribers will stream their programming when they’re traveling, and they can usually verify access privileges are being properly used. Most vacations are a week or two, and even if you move around a bit, you’re generally not in locations a world apart within the space of two days – or on the same day.

The industry can track possible abuse, and there are steps they can take – if they haven’t done so already – to limit access without alienating honest, rule-abiding subscribers. They can require all subscribers to re-enter or change passwords more frequently. It’s a risk for them because some subscribers may find this an inconvenience and drop their service. However, it’s one way to shut off access to a large number of pirates in one fell swoop.

They can also limit the number of shares they’ll allow. While Netflix, for example allows up to four shares for its most expensive plan, and providers such as HBO and DirecTV allow limited sharing. ESPN may have limits on how many streams are allowed, but that could be independent of limits placed by cable or satellite carriers.

The industry can threaten to cut off subscribers – or actually cut their cords – but that gets into all sorts of sticky legal and customer-service issues. For example, do you take action against the parents who gave their college-age kids access? Do you go after their kids? Do you go after the users of devices they believe are “invalid users?”

This problem will become more prominent on the industry’s radar screen because a lot of money is at stake. Content producers need to be paid for their product, and that payment depends on how many subscribers watch it. Cable and satellite companies pay fees to producers and collect fees from advertisers and subscribers based on the number of valid users. Nobody wants money taken off the table because of a discrepancy between subscribers and viewers.

Finally, all this sharing raises a nagging question in the back of our mind: If someone has access to an account that you pay for, how can they use this access for their own gain at your expense? Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us for help in tightening up your access controls.