Sharing the Love, or Stealing?

Passcode-Sharing Rules for Streaming Services Are Changing

Janet Stilson
ILLUMINATION
Published in
4 min readFeb 14, 2023

--

Photo by Mollie Sivaram on Unsplash

Say you have a friend named Monique who’s lost her job. You know she can barely scrape together enough change to pay the rent, and she really needs some positive distraction. You give her the passcode to your Netflix account so she can get some laughs out of “The Extraordinary Attorney Woo.” Heck, you’ve already given the code to some of your other friends, who have in turn shared their Apple TV+ and HBOMax account codes with you.

That kind of swapping and sharing of passcodes has become pretty common, judging by the conversations I’ve heard recently. But there’s reason to believe the pay streaming services are starting to put an end to that — or at least slow it down.

Netflix plans to force subscribers who play fast-and-loose with their passcodes to either pay an additional fee, or change their habits. That’s coming before the end of March, according to officials there.

I’m betting that other services will follow suit, given the amount of sharing that’s going on and the hefty costs the streamers are racking up as they try to best each other with quality, binge-worthy content.

According to a Bain & Co. report, 26% of us are “borrowing” someone else’s paid subscription to a streaming service, on average. The biggest loser in Bain’s analysis was Disney+, at 33%. Netflix came in second, at 30%.

Maybe that borrowing falls within the streamers’ various guidelines. But chances are, some of it doesn’t. Smarting from subscriber losses last year (and very hefty content costs), Netflix seems to be saying that enough is enough.

All of this led me to research exactly what the pay streaming services currently allow, and to look for signs of what other streamers might do to curb the sharing.

WHAT’S LEGAL NOW

Technically, Disney+ doesn’t allow account sharing. But it does allow four pieces of content to be streamed simultaneously. And it can support as many as 10 different devices for content downloads, according to this Android Authority article.

Paramount+ allows subscribers to have six separate profiles, and three streams can be going on simultaneously from different devices — no geographical restrictions seem to apply.

Similarly, Apple TV+ allows six different devices to be associated with a given Apple ID, all of which can download subscription content.

Hulu and Amazon Prime are among the most relaxed in their restrictions. According to a recent Forbes article: “Hulu has remained indifferent to password sharing but places limitations on allowing two screens to be using its service at the same time, and its Live TV feature requires users to set up a home network within 30 days of subscribing to the service, according to its website.”

The Forbes article goes on to say: “Amazon Prime’s approach seems to be the most lax, as subscribers to the service can share their benefits, including Prime Video, with up to two adults, four teens and four children according to its website.”

Right now, HBOMax seems to be the most restrictive, advising subscribers to refrain from sharing passcodes with anyone beyond the subscriber’s household.

UN-SHARING PASSCODES AHEAD?

Of course, all of this is subject to possible change. The pay streaming services are all very big profit-hungry enterprises. They aren’t in the game for philanthropic reasons.

Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, made it clear in a recent earnings call that the company’s streaming platforms aren’t where he wants them to be. CNN reported him as saying: “The streaming business, which I believe is the future and has been growing, is not delivering basically the kind of profitability or bottom line results that the linear business delivered for us over a few decades.” By “linear business” he was referring to programming on regular television channels or in movie theaters.

Where do you think that future profitability is going to come from? Yes, Disney is cutting its workforce. And more generally, entertainment companies try to appeal to the cost-conscious by providing less expansive or free streaming platforms that include advertising. For example, there’s the lower-cost, ad-supported option offered by Hulu, which is partially owned by Disney. No surprise that Netflix is adding an ad-supported option, after years of resisting the idea.

That’s all well and good. But what will happen when Netflix (and perhaps others) try to clamp down on consumers who are used to watching a show commercial-free — and in fact, have been getting it for free? Will the consumers find a new work-around? Will the pay streamer lose more subscribers than they had before?

They are dealing with a public that’s balked at paying huge cable bills. Cutting the cord became a trend years ago. And like Monique, a lot of people are going through economic hardships. What’s more, families no longer gather around one TV set as frequently as they once did. In fact, they might be scattered in different households. So the streamers must walk a fine line of sensitivity to economic constraints and changed viewing habits at the same time that they try to make a buck.

We’ve gone far beyond the “57 channels and nothin’ on” that Bruce Springsteen first sang about decades ago. I love switching between the bleak futuristic “The Last of Us” on HBOMax, to the edgy loser heroes in Apple TV+’s spy drama “Slow Horses,” to Netflix’s softly romantic and quirky “Attorney Woo.”

As I project out into how entertainment will change in my sci-fi book, The Juice, there’s a good chance the options will get even richer in some intriguing ways, and perhaps darker in others. But I’d like to think that the true winners, among entertainment content distributors, will be the ones that balance out their drive for profits with a sensitivity to the vast number of people that they’d like to attract.

--

--

Janet Stilson
ILLUMINATION

Janet Stilson’s novel THE JUICE, published to rave reviews. A sequel will be released in May 2024. She won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab for Women competition.