Media Companies Plan Weapons of Mass Authentication

Some day, your grandchildren will sit at your feet and marvel as you spin the yarn of the great online video revolution. With mouths agape they’ll listen as you recall a simpler time when all the video content you could ever want was ad-supported and free on the web, right there for the pluckin’. Oh-ho, it was sweet. That is, until the Winter of ’09, when the cold hearts at the Hollywood studios and the multi-service operators decided it was time to pay up.

In the same week that Time Warner (s TWX) CEO Jeff Bewkes outlined his studio’s plan for TV Everywhere, Viacom (s VIA) has now talked up its similar initiative to make sure that before you watch an episode of The Hills online, you prove that you are already a cable subscriber. From MediaPost:

CEO Philippe Dauman said this week that Viacom has been working with cable operators to develop some sort of “authentication” process, in which visitors to might need to enter a user name and password to watch a full version of “The Daily Show.”

The two media conglomerates join ESPN, which said last fall it too was exploring authentication technology. Viacom says it wants the verification process to be seamless, but if we were in an old Cold War movie, this would be the part where the Soviet guard walks up to you and says “Papers, please.” A climactic chase scene would ensue.

That’s not to say the media companies and cable operators are the evil empire. I mean they are, but just like everyone else, they have to get paid. Cable operators pay them a hefty fee to carry shows like The Hills, and they aren’t too keen on the networks turning around and putting Heidi and Spencer online for free. The networks love all that money they get from the cable operators, and they aren’t eager to upset that apple cart.

While details of this new online video world order are still being worked out among programmers and operators, this is surely going to wind up a mess. I don’t mind paying for content, but how much information will I need to provide in order to watch Rock of Love online? Will I need a PIN or a password? Or will it go even further and use facial recognition (don’t laugh, Comcast (s CMSCA) already had ideas about watching you in your living room)? And if history has shown us anything, it’s that inconvenient roadblocks thrown up before providing access to content will just drive people to piracy. That would be an unhappy ending for everyone.