Shia Labeouf and Michael Douglas in WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS, once available on HBO Now
Barry Wetcher—20th Century Fox/courtesy Everet
By Ian Salisbury
October 9, 2015

It’s no secret that young people like to consume entertainment they don’t necessarily pay for.

But when business and tech types talk about this reality, they tend to use neutral or even flattering language: Millennials, they say, like to “swap” files and “share” subscription passwords. After all, super-earnest, bike-commuting, coffee-sipping twenty-somethings don’t look like dangerous criminals. And let’s face it, no business wants to alienate the work-force’s largest generational cohort, with billions, if not trillions, worth of spending ahead of it.

But now some Wall Street analysts have decided to come right out and use another S word—steal—in discussing the problems facing some traditional media enterprises.

“The millennials are a generation that grew up (and will likely grow old) ‘sharing’ (read stealing) passwords for access to content if it continues to be ignored,” wrote analysts Mike McCormack, Scott Goldman, and Tudor Mustata in a note to clients Tuesday. “We believe it is the most significant cause of the declining pay TV subscriber base.”

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The problem, the analysts suggest, is that all this sharing/stealing could quickly destroy the cable TV business. That’s hardly a far-fetched argument. Similar trends have already gutted the music and news industries.

The Jefferies analysts argue password sharing is already “the most significant cause of the declining pay TV subscriber base.” They compare the current situation to a time when people jury-rigged access to cable with “illegal cable drops, third-party set tops and reprogrammed satellite cards.” Revenues returned only when the industry cracked down.

Of course, no one likes to be called a crook. Millennials might counter that the situation isn’t totally black and white. The music industry has evolved. And sharing streaming TV passwords isn’t clearly against the rules. Passwords for the streaming service HBO Now, for instance, are limited to a household, but the company has been vague (presumably on purpose) about what that means. Netflix, Amazon, and others all have policies that similarly attempt to both acknowledge and limit sharing.

Read Next: The Real Rules for Sharing Passwords for HBO Now, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu

The solution? The analysts call for companies to adopt tougher rules with emphasis on “authentication limits”—essentially limits on how many people can use a log in at the same time, which some sites like Netflix and Hulu already employ. But they also acknowledge the scope of the problem—and the fact that, let’s face it, it’s not just millennials. “It is difficult to meet someone (of any age demo) that hasn’t used or allowed another to use content passwords,” they lament.

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