When knights meet pirates
How "Game of Thrones" became TV's most pirated show. Credit: Timothy Tolle
When knights meet pirates

In Westeros, the medieval setting of HBO’s wildly popular Game of Thrones series, history has a funny way of repeating itself: Hubristic rulers are overthrown by power-hungry rivals, lineage determines the fates of characters and deep-seated notions of honor lead to endless warmongering. People kill, have sex and die with hypnotic regularity.


As with nearly all fantasy epics, Game of Thrones finds depth in sprawling adventure and a vibrant, richly-imagined world that’s close to (but not quite) our own. Unlike its predecessors, though, the show puts magic and sorcery on the back burner, opting instead to mimic the messiness of real life. Underscoring the gorgeous imagery and dense characterization are thoroughly modern themes, from the slow-burning effects of xenophobia to issues of gender equality sexual freedom. Tried-and-true fantasy elements like battles and bloodlines aren’t simply playthings: They have real consequences and make for an intelligent, often relevant series.


This richness has turned Game of Thrones into an incredibly successful premium-cable drama. The show averaged three million viewers in its first season and attracted 3.9 million viewers to the second-season premiere on April 1, quickly surpassing numbers for HBO’s former prime time darling, True Blood. It’s the kind of popular and critical hit the network has churned out with startling regularity for nearly a decade, fueled largely by complex storytelling and cinema-like quality.


It’s puzzling, then, why HBO would ignore the prescient example of Westeros by repeating a crippling mistake from recent history – without the buffer of fiction. An article from Forbes  claims Game of Thrones is on track to become the most-pirated TV show of the year, with more than 25 million illegal downloads as of May 9, including 2.5 million in a single day after the episode on April 30. If traffic holds steady on BitTorrent sites like The Pirate Bay, Season 2 of Game of Thrones is set to surpass Season 6 of Showtime’s Dexter as the most-downloaded TV series of all time.


“While Game of Thrones filesharing rates are probably driven in part by its appeal to the young, geeky male demographic that’s most prone to using torrent sites, HBO hasn’t helped the problem by making the show tough to watch online for the young and cable-less,” Forbes reporter Andy Greenberg writes. “The show isn’t available through Hulu or Netflix, iTunes offers only Season 1 and using HBO’s own streaming site HBO Go requires a cable subscription.”


HBO’s fatal flaw


The current Game of Thrones situation bears a striking similarity to the music-downloading frenzy of the early 2000s, when filesharing sites like Napster single handedly changed how the recording industry did business. It highlighted a basic tenet of the digital age: People find and consume content in the easiest way possible. When the faceless act of piracy is simple and often reliable, why pay?


HBO is often hailed as a groundbreaking network, but its business response to audience habits and online piracy is questionable. In November of 2011, HBO Co-President Eric Kessler brushed off “cord cutting” – a term for watching TV through a laptop or tablet, as opposed to paying for cable service – as a momentary blip in the media landscape. According to the media economics website Paid Content, Kessler believes the trend will wane when the overall economy starts to bounce back, saying “HBO will flourish under its current model, thanks to its star power.” His comments skirted the piracy issue and addressed only criticism of the tablet and smartphone app HBO Go, which still requires a full premium-cable package.


A more interesting response to the Greenberg article came from a fellow Forbes contributor, Erik Kain, who immediately wrote a response saying HBO had nothing but its aging business model to blame for attracting the ire of digital pirates. Kain’s article garnered even more attention, and over the span of two days, he went from condemning the network to suggesting a new model to admitting the channel likely sees piracy as little more than an annoyance. In his final article, Kain explains how cord cutters are still a relatively small demographic and HBO has little reason to fix something that isn’t broken. In essence, he quietly implies that the network won’t address piracy – and a growing contingent of downloaders willing to pay for stellar programs – until it starts gnawing at their bottom line.


“Since a streaming model isn’t viable at this time, HBO would suffer enormously, which would in turn lead to less content and lower budgets for shows. Probably no Game of Thrones, no Rome and so forth,” Kain writes. “I do think that the internet is the future of television, and that the current model is flawed. I don’t like the fact that high-quality television requires de facto subsidies from the myriad other low-quality channels out there.”


I agree with the bulk of Kain’s argument; hasty digitization can hack away at a network’s budget, and rather than download illegally, I have no problem paying for TV shows I enjoy. For a media behemoth like HBO, brushing the piracy issue aside makes a certain amount of sense: Twenty-five million illegal downloads is relatively small for a company with 30 million paid subscribers, as well as a massive DVD market and lucrative cable provider contracts. But choosing to ignore digital trends is borderline medieval, like saying the world only extends as far as the boundaries of a hand-drawn map. The channel’s biggest premium-cable competitor, Showtime, has 21.3 million subscribers and reaches an additional 26 million through Netflix instant streaming. Major networks like Fox and NBC, which are often blasted for being woefully behind the times with content, make episodes of select shows available for free within a day of airing.


Although Kessler made a case for protecting the HBO brand – he said the network’s focus is content, not licensing, and Netflix’s recent addition of original programming makes it a competitor – the decision ignores the culture of digital media. The Recording Industry Association of America took a similar stance before resorting to years of massive, image-mangling lawsuits to recoup billions of dollars in estimated loses. The RIAA’s approach did little to deter illegal downloading, and in 2008, it decided to abandon the majority of individual court cases.


RIAA got a huge boost from iTunes – the first outfit to sell music a la carte at a reasonable price, a tradition carried on by Spotify – and digital music accounted for half of the industry’s $7 billion in sales last year. The industry is making a rebound, thanks in part to former pirates who are now willing to pay a fair price for media.


Setting aside Kessler’s lofty talk of branding and exclusivity, learning from the RIAA’s missteps seems like a reasonable approach for HBO. As the Paid Content article notes, “The rising cost of basic cable means that would-be subscribers must shell out ever more money before they can even contemplate buying HBO in the first place.” Services like Comcast On Demand and HBO Go offer the selectivity viewers want, but not the price, and HBO is unwilling to make an individual series available outside of DVD box sets.


Since I first discovered The Sopranos in college – on DVDs borrowed from a friend – I’ve been hooked on HBO’s novelistic brand of television, from The Wire to True Blood and now Game of Thrones. I’m only a few episodes into the first season, but I’d hate to see the channel’s hubris lead to unexpected cancellation. Like any form of theft, illegal downloading is an all-too-human symptom of shortsighted thinking. HBO is poised to make the mistake of repeating history – you’d think they would know better.


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