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‘TV Everywhere’ Takes a Trip to Sochi, but Some Viewers Can’t Tag Along

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

This Friday, the 2014 Winter Olympics will kick off in Sochi, Russia, and you’re welcome to watch the proceedings online — providing that you already pay for TV offline.

NBC Sports’ streaming of the Games will put a concept called TV Everywhere on its biggest stage yet. If it resembles TV Everywhere’s last such turn in the spotlight, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, then the experience will leave some viewers unhappy.

The basic idea here is to extend the value of your paid cable or satellite TV subscription beyond the big screen in your house to the smaller displays on the computers, phones and tablets in your house and, in some cases, anywhere else with sufficient bandwidth in the United States.

It is supposed to work regardless of who you pay to bring that bundle of (mostly unwatched) channels to your house: Just log in with your TV-service account, and the site or app serving up the video will welcome you as if you had subscribed directly there.

But you have to have a cable or satellite TV service account. You cannot subscribe directly to a TV Everywhere site or app. If you don’t already pay a third party for programming, then your money’s no good at these places.

And what is it that you won’t be able to buy if you’re not a cable or satellite subscriber? NBC plans to produce from Sochi more than 1,000 hours of live streaming, double what it plans to offer via conventional TV, at both NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Live Sports Extra app for Android and iOS and cable boxes running Comcast’s X1 software

That site presents an impressive menu of almost 250 TV providers through which you can gain access to NBC’s coverage — from Ace Communications, a Houston, Minn., co-op that covers parts of Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, to Zito Media, a Coudersport, Pa., firm founded from remnants of the disgraced cable provider Adelphia’s system that now operates in 16 states.

Proving that you pay one of these companies for service, however, is not always easy. If you get TV through NBC’s corporate parent Comcast, then your sign-in should be automatic if the site sees you’re online via a Comcast cable-modem connection. The company will also let users sign on via Facebook if they link their Facebook and Comcast accounts beforehand. 

At most services, however, you’ll have to enter your account username and password. And many smaller TV providers require you to use your username and password to register at a third-party site, Watch TV Everywhere, then use that newly created account to unlock TV Everywhere offerings.

Many people have yet to jump through those hoops. The research firm GfK’s latest research, posted this January, found that 41 percent of viewers age 13 to 64 in pay-TV homes used TV Everywhere-type services from their pay-TV provider (a simpler scenario) or a TV network at least once a month. But of those, only 40 percent said they’d been asked to authenticate their pay-TV service — and of the remainder, 87 percent said they didn’t know their account ID and password. 

And at a demonstration Friday in Washington at Comcast’s offices, Comcast consumer-services vice president Marcien Jenckes said “over 70 percent” of attempted TV Everywhere logins to watch NBC’s coverage of the 2012 Olympics succeeded.

Comcast wouldn’t break down how many of the almost 30 percent of failed authentications involved accounts that should have been eligible for online viewing. But it seems unlikely that more than a handful involved people trying made-up account credentials.

And why bother making anything up when you can ask a friend or family member who subscribes to an eligible TV service for their username and password and sign on as them instead? The practice of borrowing accounts to get access to online video may violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but it’s common enough to have reached New York Times trend-story status by May of 2012. 

Just this January, HBO CEO Richard Plepler made a few headlines when he told BuzzFeed’s Peter Lauria that HBO Go account sharing in some ways made for a “terrific marketing vehicle for the next generation of viewers.”

At Friday’s demo, Comcast’s Jenckes didn’t have a number for how many Comcast logins might be borrowed for TV Everywhere viewing, but he certainly didn’t sound thrilled about the concept. 

“It’s something that we watch,” he said. “There are a series of things we do to try to get in front of credential sharing.” One of those was checking for how many simultaneous logins it will allow from the same account. He didn’t specify what minimum number would be judged suspicious, but it seems to be above two.

To a degree, Comcast and every other provider hoping TV Everywhere will slow or stop the years-long trend of cord cutting are manufacturing the problem faced by any widely distributed “digital rights management” system: A DRM scheme secure enough to thwart most unauthorized use will probably also lock out legitimate, paying customers who aren’t as technically adept.

At some point, online viewers mumbling, “Shut up and take my money” at the sight of a TV Everywhere login will get an affirmative answer from a network that’s decided it can’t keep sending potential customers away to borrow a buddy’s login. We’re not there yet … but the 2016 Summer Olympics are only two and a half years away.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.