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Here’s my Netflix password — but you’ll have to pay for it

By the end of the 1980s, six in 10 households in the US had cable television and almost every household in the UK had the BBC burbling away in the corner of the living room. But, I recall, visiting an aunt in rural France as a child was a step into the past. Her neighbour had a television and phone line; she didn’t. Cousins, friends and a little me all piled into the neighbour’s garden. The TV was placed in front of the window for us to watch an international football tournament. I forget which. I just remember the people watching.

It is now taken for granted that most of us have access to a screen in the palm of our hand. We are not tethered to a location through cables and aerials but by data packages and subscriptions to streaming services. Even so, we are still piling into communal screens through sharing passwords. Many a subscription service could map an intricate web of personal connections through various IP addresses logging into one account.

Netflix is not happy. After the long Covid binge, new subscriptions are slowing down, adding only 9mn in 2022, to bring them to a total of 231mn last year. The bean counters say it is time for password sharing to stop. This is already against Netflix’s terms but they’d simply never taken action before.

New rules have been instituted in some countries in Latin America. This month, without notice, Canadians were told they had to nominate a primary household, cutting off access to outsiders unless additional fees were paid. Portugal, Spain and New Zealand account holders faced the same. By the end of March new rules, under which sharing will only be possible for an additional payment, will come into force in the UK and the US will follow.

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The accountants at Netflix justify the move by pointing out that 100mn households are using someone else’s password without a subscription. The desire to share is understandable: there has always been something mildly depressing about watching TV in isolation, rather like pouring yourself a glass of wine at home while the pub down the road sits empty.

Password sharing meant you could watch the same show with friends and keep tabs on what everyone was getting excited by. It meant that the atomisation of personal screens wasn’t as stark. Living rooms and bedrooms in different homes were connected through a shared resource.

You knew what your children were watching through viewing their profile on your premium subscription. And your best friend who’d once asked you for the password. And your ex, who’d once asked your kid for your login and never logged out. The shared experience created a patter of conversation, akin to the British TV show Gogglebox in which TV viewers are filmed in their living rooms watching television.

Logins have become valued as a token of friendship and as a weapon of revenge. One of my favourite stories, posted on Twitter, was by a woman whose boyfriend had ditched her but kept hold of her Netflix password. He was mad keen on a series it was airing. The final episode of his favourite show was dropping at midnight and he’d organised a viewing party. She waited until one minute to midnight and then changed the password.

People used to write to newspapers threatening to cancel their subscriptions when an article appeared that they didn’t like. The Netflix announcement has caused a similar outpouring of outrage, particularly among Canadians who don’t see their US neighbours being given the same punishment. But it is more that they won’t be able to watch something they like at a price that they like.

Last year, New York-based Horowitz Research found that the average streamer used 7.1 services per year but only paid for 4.3 of them. Baked into that maths is the evidence that what goes around comes around. You might pay for Disney+ but your mate pays for Amazon Prime and you can swap. (Neither of those services has suggested tightening rules on password sharing yet.)

A further study by the same company found that seven out of 10 Netflix password sharers would be prepared to buy their own subscription. But in reality, how many streaming services can you justify? US subscribers were paying an average of $54 a month in 2022, according to JD Power. It is a gamble on the power of FOMO.

Bob Iger, on his second stint as head of Disney (which, across all its networks, has around the same number of subscribers as Netflix), recently put this hunt for individual subscriptions in the past tense: “We were . . . in a global arms race for subscribers.” The new focus for streaming services is profitability from those who already tune in.

As can be seen from the Netflix fallout, part of that added value lies in the ability to share. Connected living rooms make connected lives. There’s no point making a great television show if no one’s talking about it.

Follow Joy on Twitter @joy_lo_dico

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