When HBO launched a streaming app for its cable customers called HBO Go in 2010, twentysomethings passed around the logins of their cable-subscribing parents, uncles, grandparents, and step-siblings like a case of mono in a freshman dorm. But in the nine years since, paying millennials have greased the rise of the streaming era as the number of popular platform-only shows boomed, creating a new kind of account-sharing behavior: streaming-curious baby boomers mooching Netflix, Hulu, Prime, and other subscription passwords off their kids.
For all the commentary about how dependent millennials remain on their parents, little has been said about what boomers are getting from their kids, which includes the fringe set who have been bumming their children’s logins to extensive digital catalogs of on-demand entertainment. Hey, it’s something. Maybe millennials aren’t just parasites; maybe they’ve evolved into contributing members of the login ecosystem.
In a small survey of 1,127 people by Cordcutting.com, 6.8% of Hulu moochers, 5.1% of Amazon Prime Video moochers, and 2.9% of Netflix moochers said their child was paying for the subscription.
“Password sharing will continue into the future,” said Eric Haggstrom, a forecasting analyst at eMarketer. Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix did not comment on questions sent by BuzzFeed News about adult children funding their parents’ binge-watching habits.
Mooching, i.e., using a streaming password that you don’t pay for, has become a part of modern life as people spend more time with subscription-based streaming platforms (Netflix now starts at $8.99 per month, Hulu at $5.99 per month, and an annual Amazon Prime membership is $119) and less time with free broadcast TV. People might pay for one service, but trade with a friend for another service: my Netflix for your Hulu. Even exes are sharing passwords. Boomers who love their cable might give their cord-cutting kids the Comcast password for a streaming login. I talked to dozens of people who share their streaming logins with their parents and found a whole variety of arrangements over who pays for what services.
“It's a very tangled web of multi-mooching,” says Brooks Rocco, 35, of his arrangement with his parents, who are divorced. He pays for and shares logins to Netflix, HBO Now, Amazon Prime, and YouTubeTV (the $50 monthly bundle for streaming basic cable and live TV) with both his parents. In return, he uses his mother’s cable login to get PBS, which isn’t available on YouTubeTV. His father, meanwhile, shares his New York Times login in exchange for all those passwords. “Not really a fair trade now that I think of it, but very ‘Dad,’” Rocco said.
“[Our] Netflix goes to my partner’s parents, [our] Hulu to my parents. That's how much we prefer his folks to mine,” said Cody Woodard, 32. Their parents all have their own Amazon Prime and cable accounts, and don’t share anything back with their children. Woodard put his foot down when it came to sharing his HBO account, however, as he gets it through PlayStation Vue, and worried that a login from a different ZIP code would mess up the local live TV channels. He’s aware his refusal seems callous. “How dare they, all they did was take care of me for my entire childhood,” Woodard joked.
Pedro Davila shares his Netflix with his 68- and 70-year-old parents. “Not only do they use my login credentials,” he told BuzzFeed News, “they got mad at me when I wanted to cancel because One Day at a Time was canceled. I’m 40 years old and my parents forbade me from canceling a service I pay for that they ‘borrow.’”
In 2019, when many services allow multiple devices to stream from one account at the same time, password sharing is widespread. Another small survey of 500 Netflix customers by MoffetNathanson found that only 55% of Netflix users pay out of their own pocket, and one in seven people straight-up mooch a password from someone they don’t live with. Mooching off siblings, friends, and significant others remains more common than mooching off your children.
eMarketer’s Eric Haggstrom said Netflix hasn’t cracked down on password sharing, and that’s likely a growth strategy. Partly because it exposes more people to Netflix, and partly because knowing your friends or family are sharing your login makes it less likely you’ll cancel, because you feel responsible for them. “Given that most of these sites haven’t fully prevented password sharing, they are either unable or unwilling to stop this behavior,” he said. (For the record, Haggstrom uses his parents’ Netflix login, but they use his Spotify and HBO Now.) In a 2016 earnings call, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said password sharing is “something [Netflix has] to learn to live with.”
For many boomers, the barrier to getting their own Netflix account isn’t cost. “I don’t think the payment is what holds them up — it’s that they’re so technologically challenged in the strangest ways and at the strangest times that they’d be too overwhelmed to create their own account. It’d do them in,” said Anna Smith, 32, whose parents, 56 and 67, use her Netflix account.
There is a cohort whose commitment to learning gadgetry to watch TV peaked with programming a VCR. Streaming requires a separate device like a Chromecast or Roku, or a newer-model smart TV, or else you’re watching only on laptop or phone.
“My parents mooch off my Netflix,” said Brennin Cummings, 28, “but only after a good two years of me writing down my login on different Post-its or the Notes app in my dad's iPhone 4 every time I went home — they couldn't remember it to use it.”
Cummings’ father, Todd, says he and his wife watch Netflix about five nights a week, and are currently bingeing Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. “If Brennin cancelled her subscription, I think we would be motivated to pay for our own,” Todd Cummings told BuzzFeed News over email. “Netflix doesn't need to know that however!”
Then there’s the matter of whether boomers find the platforms’ exclusive content compelling enough to get their own accounts. Anne McDonald, 68, of Redmond, Oregon, and her husband use their daughter Kathryn’s account, but they’re not Netflix regulars. “The last time I watched anything on Netflix was Bruce Springsteen on Broadway in December,” she told BuzzFeed News. She gets frustrated with the way you have to scroll through content, and is unimpressed by how few movies fresh from the theaters are on there.
Netflix's age demographics are indeed changing. While Netflix is notoriously secretive about certain things (it doesn’t announce viewer numbers or ratings for its shows and movies) and doesn’t publish age demographics of its customers, outside market research shows there is password sharing across generations.
Research aggregator eMarketer reports that 61% of Americans with internet have some sort of access to a streaming service — either as paying customers or shared. And of that, Netflix is by far the most popular service with more than 60 million paying members in the US. Analysts say that Gen X’ers and baby boomers are the quickest growing demographic for the streaming service — even if some of them aren't actually paying for it.
“As for paying for it ourselves...nope,” the elder Ms. McDonald said. “We don’t watch it enough to make it worthwhile.”