ABC to stream Oscars online in authentication experiment

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Oscar. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
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Alex Weprin

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ABC will stream Sunday's Academy Awards telecast online, a first for the 86-year-old awards show. 

There is a catch. The red carpet pre-show and the awards telecast itself will only be available to viewers who are authenticated cable TV subscribers. Even then, only a handful of companies have signed on to allow streaming for their customers. Comcast has, but Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and Dish Network have not.

The awards and related programming will be streamed on-demand after the fact. There will also be a behind-the-scenes show called "Oscar Backstage" that will be streamed to all viewers, regardless of whether they subscribe to cable.

For ABC and the august awards show, it is a baby step towards a future in which consumers view what they want, when they want to view it.

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Still, the current status of authenticated TV remains messy.

The idea is simple: pay-TV customers log in with their credentials, and get access to all their shows, as well as live-streaming of some programming.

Some authenticated products work very well. For the Sochi Olympics, NBC gave every visitor five free minutes to stream video, enough time for them to find their log-in if they needed to find it. The network also automatically authenticated viewers if they logged on using a web service provided by their cable company. It made for a smooth process. Likewise, Fox streamed the Super Bowl this year using its "Fox Sports Go" product. The company offered a trial open to everyone during the game. Going forward, users will have to log in, but the free trial familiarized viewers with the product.

For much programming, authenticated deals are splintered. In the case of "Watch ABC," almost half of all pay-TV customers will not be able to watch the Oscars broadcast online, because the company they get service from is not a participating provider. Networks like ABC and cable channels like TNT and TBS offer live-streaming, but usually tie them to rate increases for the channels. If a pay-TV company doesn't want to pay more for the channel or network, content streaming may not be offered to its customers.

The process is not usually brought to the attention of pay-TV customers, who want to be able to watch their programming whenever and wherever they want, but also want to restrain the cost of their ever-increasing cable bills.

Still, the first step toward normalizing the viewing of big events on devices other than the TV set is to make them available. This year the Super Bowl, the Olympics and the Academy Awards will all be streamed online. There is still much work to be done, but there is no denying that it is a glimpse into the future.