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Millions of Netflix users are using someone else’s password, but that’s not bad for Netflix

A new survey finds that 14 percent of US Netflix users are watching the service without paying for it.

Ben Affleck in Netflix’s Triple Frontier.
Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix

Odds are very good that if you’re reading this, you watch Netflix. Are you paying for Netflix? That’s another story.

The streaming service says it has at least 139 million paid subscribers around the world. But there are decent odds that many more people are watching Netflix and letting someone else pay for it.

A new survey from analysts MoffettNathanson finds that 14 percent of US Netflix users admit that they’re watching the service using an account paid for by someone they don’t live with. That is, they’re watching Netflix even though they’re not technically supposed to be watching Netflix.

As analyst Michael Nathanson points out, Netflix (which has not gone out of its way — at all — to stop password sharers) can view this as a half-empty/half-full situation.

On the plus side, he figures Netflix non-payers currently represent some 8 million users who could eventually be persuaded to pay for Triple Frontier and other Netflix content. On the other hand, if those non-payers never end up paying, they end up reducing Netflix’s growth prospects.

Another very interesting data point from Nathanson’s survey is that Netflix users love stuff like Triple Frontier and Friends and everything else in the company’s huge catalog. But content isn’t the only reason they love Netflix: They love the Netflix product itself — an ad-free, on-demand service that lets you watch whatever you want (assuming Netflix has it), whenever you want, as many times as you want.

Asked to rank reasons they like Netflix, Nathanson’s respondents ranked Netflix shows (and movies) after reasons like “not being interrupted by ads” and “I can binge watch.” In other words, Netflix users like the container even more than the content.

That finding should be particularly heartening to Netflix as it prepares to take on the likes of Disney and Apple and AT&T, each of which is mounting some kind of streaming service of its own, and all of which are looking to make a splash with original, exclusive content that Netflix won’t have. And it’s a reminder to would-be Netflix killers that the experience is a crucial component of the product — perhaps the most important component.

Big caveat: Nathanson’s survey consisted of some 500 US residents who responded via the internet. Nathanson says he hoped the group would be “nationally representative of the US Census,” but feel free to wonder what would happen if these questions were asked of more people.

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