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No TV? No Subscription? No Problem

Jenna Wortham (via NYT/ AFR) | April 8, 2013
HBO Go can be accessed using anyone's account. This behaviour of sharing password information to HBO Go, Netflix, Hulu and other streaming sites and services, appears increasingly prevalent among web-savvy people who don't own televisions or subscribe to cable.

According to HBO, 6.5 million of its 30 million subscribers have signed up for HBO Go. When I asked Mr Cusson if the network would consider figuring out a way to capture and monetise those slippery users who were piggybacking on others' accounts, he declined to speculate on what might be possible.

"The best business approach at the time is in the business model that we currently have," he said.

In other words, it isn't financially viable for HBO to offer a cheaper, digital-only subscription, either sold separately or bundled to an internet service. So, to a point, account sharing is allowed.

Other subscription streaming services have a different approach. Spotify, the music streaming service, does not allow two people to play songs simultaneously using the same account. A representative at Hulu says that the company's paid subscription service, Hulu Plus, is designed for a single user and that the company doesn't let people stream the same show to different screens at the same time. (Amazon and Netflix did not respond to requests for interviews, but both companies have similar mechanisms in place for their services, though different users on the same account can watch different programs at the same time.)

On Amazon Prime, for example, if two people try to watch the same episode of Pretty Little Liars using the same account, both streams will be frozen and a warning message will flash. But one user can simply watch something else until the first person is done trying to figure out who "A" is.

This feels like a missed opportunity for all these services. It's the failure to grasp the future of television as a shared social experience online. Sure, we are all scattered around, watching all sorts of programs. But then there are moments, as in the days of old, when we are all huddled together - figuratively speaking - tuning into the same show or event at about the same time each night. These days, though, we are watching through some kind of connected device, whether it's a smartphone, a laptop or a web-connected television.

Nor does social viewing have to be around a big event. For example, I watched Friday Night Lights all winter on Netflix, along with someone I don't know who also shares the account. Every time I log in, I can see the last episode that this mystery viewer watched; and yet there's currently no way for us to chat about our reactions to it. That would be much more fun than bugging my other friends about plot twists and turns they saw ages ago, when the show was first broadcast.

We live in a world of on-demand entertainment, where people can consume programming in many formats at any time. That makes shared, cultural experiences more important than ever. Although we can plow through House of Cards at our leisure, all in one sitting, do we want to? Or would we rather tune in to Twitter and follow along to see our friends reacting in real time? There's room for both approaches, but whatever company figures out how to put them together may very well emerge as the dominant force in television.


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