Papers, Please: Get Ready to Prove You Paid for That Video

If 2008 was all about getting premium content online (thank you, Hulu!), 2009 is shaping up to be the year you pay for it, and Comcast-owned video portal Fancast is among those pushing for so-called authentication.

Unlike rival premium content sites, Facast does not consider itself a repository for all things video. “Hulu has an online video audience,” said Karin Gilford, senior vice president of Fancast and online entertainment for Comcast Interactive Media. “What Fancast is getting is people who watch television.” Currently, Fancast offers 10,000 full episodes on its site, and according to Gilford, 50 percent of people who click to watch one watch the whole thing. The average viewer spends 86 minutes a month on Fancast, which adds up to roughly two 44-minute (hour-long in TV terms) shows or four 22-minute sitcoms. But the salad days of watching all of those shows for free are coming to an end.

Multiservice operators (e.g. cable companies) pay networks big fees to carry programming, and as such are unhappy that networks are turning around and putting that content online for free. The result? Cable and media companies like Comcast and Time Warner are developing plans that require viewers to prove they have a subscription to an MSO before they can watch video online. Comcast is calling its plan “On Demand Online” and Time Warner’s is dubbed “TV Everywhere.”

The obvious downside, and what will rankle those on the free-lovin’ world wide web, is any kind of barrier that keeps them from their shows. The upside, as the cable and media companies like to assure us, is that they will be able to provide more content online that isn’t currently available.

Gilford described she and her team as “laser-focused” on bringing authentication to the market, with plans to make it available in the second half of this year. Just don’t ask what authentication will look like, because at this point, details are scant. A cable operator like Comcast that provides your video and broadband will already be able to tell when you’re accessing online video from home and unlock content based on your subscription level (i.e. if you subscribe to pay channels like HBO or Showtime, you’ll be able to access that content online as well). If you’re at work or traveling, more information will be required — exactly what kind of info is unknown.

Not everyone is so gung-ho over authentication. As Will Richmond over at VideoNuze points out, it will be incredibly complicated — and the cable companies aren’t exactly known for customer satisfaction. Disney CEO Bob Iger is skeptical as well, saying during a recent speech (via Multichannel News) that, “[P]reventing people from watching any shows online, unless they subscribe to some multichannel service could be viewed as both anti-consumer, and anti-technology, and would be something we would find difficult to embrace.”

The folks at Fancast are undeterred, however. Gilford stopped by the NewTeeVee offices the other day to present a short video interview about authentication and to chat about what comes next, which includes adapting the site into a two-screen experience in an attempt to capitalize on users watching TV with their laptops on.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.

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