What is “authentication” and why does every streaming app make you do it?

You settle in to watch some new show you’ve never tried, on a network you don’t usually watch. It’s not available on demand from your satellite or cable provider, so you go to their app. And you get something like this:

which I have to tell you is a massive drag. As easy as they want to make it, you still have to go to some web site and type in some random letters which, you’ll never do right the first time. And then you wait and hope the servers over in who-knows-where smile upon you and let you watch the thing.

Not only that, but you sometimes have to do this once a month depending on the app, and if you upgrade your streaming device you have to do it All. Over. Again.

Now, the top streaming providers are working on solutions. The new version of Apple’s TVOS was supposed to have a system where you could enter in your satellite or cable credentials once and have them flow to all your apps. Except, well, it didn’t. It probably will, but it didn’t right out of the box. I know, eventually this whole mess will seem like no problem at all but for today it is certainly the worst part of the streaming experience.

It’s called “authentication” or “activation” and it’s done because, well, money. Streaming devices show programs without commercials or with limited commercials compared to satellite or cable, and that means potentially less money for those programs. You tend to forget that the whole reason for this video entertainment is to make money. Awards are nice, buzz is nice, but money… is where it’s at. If you could download an app to your streaming device and watch the same programs for free that you pay your satellite company for… it wouldn’t last long. Yet, one of the big draws of streaming is limited or no commercials. So what can be done?

The answer is “authentication.” Apps like FX, USA, HBO GO, and others only work if you are subscribed to the channel through your pay-TV provider. The provider actually pays the network if you stream, and they need to know if you’re doing it. So, they have you sign in with your pay-TV provider and then boom, the charges start racking up.

If you think about it, this is a pretty weird arrangement. There’s this general feeling that streaming will kill traditional pay TV and that may eventually be true. In the meantime, though, pay TV companies and streaming companies aren’t the enemies you think they are. Streamers depend on networks to provide apps and programs, and those apps and programs are paid for by pay TV companies (and eventually by you.) If everyone were to drop pay TV today, a lot of those free apps on your streaming device would disappear too, and before you knew it you’d be paying $100 a month for your streaming instead of $100 a month for your TV.

New services like DIRECTV Now will bring content to your devices without letting the whole world collapse… by essentially bringing a pay-TV model. Sling TV, DISH’s streaming package, already does this, providing a limited amount of live TV to streaming devices. DIRECTV Now is expected to deliver even more, but the chances are it won’t be cheap.

Yes, my friends, it is eventually going to get sorted out. But in the meantime you’re going to have to deal with this whole mess for a little longer.