It would seem to be a victimless crime, and one that college students perpetrate every day. Let’s say you want to watch HBO GO, or TBS, or even Hulu. All you have to do is find someone who has access to the streaming rights for those shows and login using their user ID. Young people away at college do this with reckless abandon, often ignoring college-provided cable TV to watch premium content provided by their parents’ cable or satellite provider. There’s practically no way for content providers to stop it… some put a limit on the number of registered devices but that doesn’t really do much. It’s so common that we don’t even think about it.
Yes, you are breaking the law.
And yet, it’s both wrong and illegal. First of all it’s very unlikely that jackbooted thugs are going to break down your door and wrest your phone from your hands so they can check for the presence of an improperly-obtained TBS authentication. That… isn’t going to happen. But just because you won’t get caught, does that mean it’s ok? It’s against the terms of service agreements that we all ignore even though we click that we’ve read and understood them. It’s potentially depriving those companies of revenue even though in real life, you would probably just find a different way to pirate that same content if you couldn’t do it by using someone else’s login.
At its heart, this is the same sort of electronic piracy that’s been part of the computing landscape since the beginning. There is so much content out there and if it’s not easily shareable yet, it’s probably just a matter of time before someone figures out how to crack it. Fifteen years ago, piracy nearly sank the music industry, which today is healthier than ever. How did it survive? By understanding that if you charge a fair amount for content, people won’t bother stealing it. Apple, which was at one time the king of encrypted music, removed encryption from all its music and actually made more money by doing it. Their prices were fair and while music piracy is still there, it’s obvious that there’s enough money going through the system to keep everyone happy.
What’s the endgame?
So what’s to be done about all the people using streaming service logins that aren’t theirs? HBO has shown that it can deliver a quality product at a fair price, over and over again. Even with the end of Game of Thrones they still have a massive number of new shows and all that catalog content. There’s no question HBO NOW is worth it, there’s no question that paying under $20 to add all that HBO and Cinemax content to your satellite TV plan is worth it.
The big trend today is advertiser support. After years of eliminating commercials, the trend for 2019 is limited commercial breaks. Pluto TV, Tubi, and others give you great content with very minimal commercials, along the lines of 4 minutes per hour. For comparison, broadcast TV gives you an astounding 22 minutes of commercials per hour. Providers like CBS and Hulu even have found a way to make you pay for the service and watch commercials, but I feel like that specific little niche is shrinking.
Will HBO have an advertiser-supported tier? I sincerely doubt it. Truth is they don’t need to. They’re doing just fine on high-dollar subscriptions. If they find a way to do away with password sharing they’ll do even better.
The right product at the right price
HBO’s price point is high, but they continue to provide really high levels of content. People are paying it. In fact enough people are paying it that the piracy issue doesn’t seem to be worth pursuing. There’s a cost to tracking down pirates. You have to make the software more secure and then you need a “fraud squad” for finding the really egregious offenders. Right now, it seems like the cost/benefit analysis for HBO piracy is just fine. If it were worth the time and money to track down hapless college kids who just want a little downtime?
One thing is sure, though… this is something that needs to be straightened out. Sooner or later these college students will have kids of their own, and then where will they get their HBO?