Game of Thrones Breaks Piracy Records (and That May Be Good)

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Salladhor Saan isn’t the only pirate across the Narrow Sea. It turns out that in a single 24-hour period, 1 million people pirated the Season 3 finale of Game of Thrones using BitTorrent. So, it looks like the Red Wedding didn’t turn everyone off to the show. But what does it say about the new-media landscape that so many people are willing, able and eager to pirate episodes to get their Westeros fix?

Game of Thrones is the second-most popular series that HBO has ever broadcast (after The Sopranos), but it is the most-pirated show on television today. The cable channel has worked to create zeitgeist-y, must-see content that commands a premium fee; HBO costs an additional $20 a month on top of regular cable in my area. It previously considered offering HBO Go, its online streaming service, without requiring a subscription to the cable service, but executives aren’t in a rush to make any changes. Of course, why would they be? Game of Thrones DVD sales are high, and the number of people watching the show on television is increasing (the third season was its high-rated yet, a rare feat for a serialized drama).

In essence, “honest” subscribers and DVD buyers are keeping the profit margins high enough to ensure piracy isn’t financially harmful to HBO. This model seems unsustainable, however. Remember the music industry circa 1999? Relying on a subset of your customers to actually pay for content while their children/sisters/brothers/friends/neighbors are getting that content for free typically ends in financial disaster, or a complete and total overhaul of the content delivery system. People just aren’t that honest.

Lucian Msamati as Salladhor Saan

Lucian Msamati as Salladhor Saan

It’s possible HBO has simply decided it isn’t worth the investment to try to stop people from pirating content, or to put up better walls around its existing content. A friend of mine desperately wanted to watch the season premiere of Girls, and although she was an HBO Go subscriber (through her parents), the system was acting up. So she illegally downloaded the episode using a torrent. Non-subscribers have a choice: either wait for the DVDs or download episodes illegally. At The Oatmeal, you can get a lovely NSFW depiction of how this generally shakes out.

Since its inception, HBO has dealt with piracy. Back in the day, that meant stealing cable from a neighbor, or tricking the cable company into thinking you’re a new customer to get three more months of free HBO. But now, generally speaking, piracy takes less effort than calling your cable company to do the right thing. Right now, HBO’s best move might be to lay low and wait until it can actually beat the convenience level of BitTorrent while delivering higher-quality video.

There’s another factor at work here, and that’s the sheer addictiveness of Game of Thrones. HBO has made a good business of building addictive, story-driven episodic programming. Fans can’t get enough. GoT director David Petrarca has said he thinks the “cultural buzz” that pirated episodes generate is worth the financial hit to HBO. Easy for a director to say, right? But, if you think about it, there might be some logic here: If all those non-subscribers weren’t watching Game of Thrones, would Jimmy Fallon decide to parody it on his show? Would Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly be glued to Maisie Williams’ every move? Allowing a little piracy keeps HBO shows front and center, even when their actual ratings can’t possibly match that of American Idol or NCIS. As long as that buzz translates into an uptick in subscribers, HBO might be fine with a little bit of illegal downloading.

While it’s unlikely HBO is going to start handing out medals to seeders on BitTorrent, for now the channel’s executives aren’t complaining. Go forth and download, my friends, winter is coming — and you’re going to need to hole up with a whole bunch of Season 4 episodes when it does.

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