Growing pains: Auto login driving advances in TV Everywhere authentication

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Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) saw a backlash from both TV critics and subscribers in 2009, when its first TV Everywhere service, Fancast Xfinity Online, forced customers to install an application on their computers called Comcast Access before they could watch full-length episodes of programs ranging from HBO's The Sopranos to Comedy Central's The Daily Show.

Strauss

"That was probably an eight- to 10-step process that was required to get authenticated," recalls Comcast SVP of Digital and Emerging Platforms Matt Strauss. "We've narrowed it down to a three-step process. The next evolution of this will probably be a one-step or no-step process. You're auto authenticated--you don't have to do anything," he added.

TV Everywhere authentication has come a long way since Comcast launched the industry's first TV Everywhere website, and the first app for Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPad that delivered subscription video programming, in 2010. Demand for finding simpler ways for subscribers to watch their favorite programs online and through mobile devices has spurred the rise of startup technology vendors such as Synacor, which has built an authentication platform and TV Everywhere portals for dozens of cable networks and operators. The Buffalo, N.Y.-based company, which recently introduced a Social Login product that lets cable subscribers use their Facebook, Twitter or Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) logins to access TV Everywhere content, went public last February. Its market cap cracked the $100 million mark last week after it announced a deal with Verizon (NYSE: VZ) to provide an authentication platform for Verizon FiOS TV subscribers.

Software giant Adobe Systems has also emerged as a key authentication player with its Adobe Pass product, which is used by several major programmers including Fox Networks, Turner Broadcasting, MTV Networks, Scripps Networks Interactive and AMC Networks.

Authentication is also a growing business for Clearleap, the Duluth, Ga.-based technology vendor run by former Cox Communications Director of Product Strategy Braxton Jarratt. It provides authentication services to Buckeye Cablesystem and Cincinnati Bell and has an integration deal with Adobe. Clearleap encodes HBO programming for video-on-demand distribution on cable systems and recently renewed a deal with the premium network that allows it to provide authentication for HBO Go to pay TV distributors.

New login options

New login approaches have emerged since Comcast flipped the switch on its TV Everywhere website, now called Xfinity TV, including cross-domain authentication, where cable subscribers who log in to a TV Everywhere site such as WatchESPN don't need to log in a second time when they visit HBO Go. Several pay TV distributors now offer cross-domain authentication, including Verizon, Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), Charter Communications (Nasdaq: CHTR) and DirecTV (Nasdaq: DTV).

Comcast was also the first pay TV provider to offer "automatic in home authentication" during its coverage of the Summer Olympics last year in London, when it allowed subscribers of its pay TV and high-speed Internet service to access Olympics programming online without having to use a login.

Comcast, which owns NBC and the cable networks that carried Olympics programming, was able to offer auto authentication, while subscribers of DirecTV, Dish Network (Nasdaq: DISH), AT&T (NYSE: T) U-verse TV and other rivals had to login to the Olympics website using account information from their pay TV providers. Strauss said the Comcast is talking to its programming suppliers about expanding the approach to other networks.

"You'll see us continue to extend that experience more broadly later this year," Strauss aid.

Synacor is talking to its cable network and MSO customers about offering subscribers automatic in-home authentication, which would allow for "true frictionless" access to programming, said Michael Bishara, its VP and GM of TV Everywhere. Bishara, a former HBO executive who helped launch HBO Go, said Synacor hopes to begin deploying auto login during the second half of 2013.

Comcast, the largest cable MSO, was the first to offer automatic login to more than 20 million subscribers. But Midcontinent Communications, a mid-sized cable MSO with 300,000 subscribers, was the first provider to allow subscribers to use Facebook, Twitter or Google credentials.

In April, Midcontinent launched Synacor's Cloud ID Social Login product to subscribers in the Upper Midwest. Bishara said subscribers who use the social login initially have to enter account information for both their cable accounts and login information for Facebook, Google or Twitter. "Once you've done that one-time event, you don't have to go back and do it again," he added.

Source: Synacor

Turner Broadcasting VP of Business Development Michael Quigley said the social login approach could make it easier for more cable subscribers to use TV Everywhere platforms. "I think Synacor is on to something really important there," Quigley said. 

Adobe is also looking at the social login approach. "Using social credentials and other ways to ensure easy and seamless access are things we are looking at as well," said Adobe spokesman Stefan Offerman. 

Fox plays hardball

TV Everywhere authentication has become a key strategy not only for cable networks and distributors, but also for broadcasters. News Corp. (Nasdaq: NWSA) COO Chase Carey caused a stir in summer 2011, when he announced that Fox would pull full-length episodes of The SimpsonsFringe and other hit series from Fox.com and Hulu, and that it would only offer the content online to subscribers of pay TV distributors that signed authentication deals. The company packages TV Everywhere authentication in broad carriage deals that include retransmission-consent for Fox owned-and-operated stations and license fees for FX, National Geographic Channel and other cable networks.

While Fox has struck authentication deals with AT&T U-verse TV, Cable One, Dish Network, Verizon, Mediacom Communications and Blue Ridge Communications, it lacks deals with several key distributors, including Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision (NYSE: CVC) and Cox Communications.

Debate has also emerged among some networks and operators about whether programming should be distributed through websites and apps owned by programmers or through TV Everywhere portals such as Comcast's Xfinity TV or DirecTV Everywhere. CBS doesn't allow Comcast to offer its content through its Xfinity website or mobile video apps.

Distributors also face increased competition from Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) and over-the-top video providers, and many pay TV subscribers have to navigate multiple online video sites and user interfaces from multichannel providers and connected TV devices such as Roku to find their favorite programs.

Jarratt, Clearleap's CEO, said he expects cable operators and other pay TV distributors to begin to embrace over-the-top video and make it easier for subscribers to navigate content from multiple sources. Frontier Communications has aggregated content from cable networks, broadcast networks and online video players with its TumTiki video portal, which includes TV shows and movies from Hulu and Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN). Clearleap is also pitching operators a ClearPlay Authentication product that can allow subscribers to access online video content from multiple programmers, including NBCUniversal and Turner Broadcasting content.

"We think that there will ultimately be this blend of content you get from operators, content from authenticated services, and pure over-the top," Jarratt said. "Consumers won't want to go to 10 different places with 10 different logins, and 10 different UIs [user interfaces]," he added.

Authentication Service Vendors
Vendor Authentication Service Networks Supported New Approach
Adobe Adobe Primetime Turner, Viacom, Fox, Disney, NBCU, AMC, Starz, NFL, A&E, Pac-12, Hallmark, Hulu, TWC SportsNet automatic in-home authentication
Clearleap ClearPlay HBO, Cinemax; integration deal allows it to support Adobe customers single sign-social login (Facebook, Twitter, Google)on
Synacor Cloud ID Turner, Fox, Hulu, Turner, Big Ten Network, HBO, Cinemax, Hulu, Epix social login (Facebook, Twitter, Google)
Vubiquity AnyVU NBCU, HBO, Fox, Turner, A&E Networks none