The Seven Kingdoms are ruled by a revolving cast of characters, but “Game of Thrones” is consistently the golden crown of television, proving its popularity with the highest number of pirated downloads for three years straight. The acclaimed series returned to the air Sunday night with the premiere of its fifth season, but not everyone was viewing it from their TV.
The first four episodes were leaked online this weekend and have since been downloaded well over a million times. Although many fans view the leak as a godsend, desperate to see what happens next, it calls for a reevaluation of piracy and the binge-watching culture. Whether by torrenting, streaming or other methods of file sharing, piracy is here to stay. The real point of interest regards how the industry, and HBO specifically, is responding in order to regain the business of a more demanding consumer base.
Defying the greedy practices for which many production companies have been known, HBO has long championed viewer interests with its affordable pay-to-view service, featuring hit shows with high production values such as “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “The Wire” and “Game of Thrones.” Proving that it can keep up with market trends, HBO created a streaming service similar to Netflix that allows subscribers to access the entirety of its content, free of additional charges. While most other giants of the entertainment industry fight tooth and nail against internet piracy, refusing to change their archaic business models, HBO sees piracy for what it truly is: a service problem. For subscribers, there’s no need to pirate HBO material because everything they’ve ever made is now available for high-quality streaming. Instead of condemning torrenters, HBO gives them a reasonable alternative actually worth paying for.
No other network seems to understand the urgent demand for streaming services better than HBO, and it has proven that quality and convenience translates into cash. HBO’s CEO Richard Plepler has stated that password sharing for the network’s streamable services is a “terrific marketing vehicle for the next generation of viewers.” Its laissez-faire attitude extends to illegal downloading, and David Petrarca, a production director for “Game of Thrones,” has even argued that piracy “helps the show’s cultural buzz, and it does not impact the bottom line.”
As long as HBO continues to produce beloved content, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be able to survive even if cable becomes obsolete. The network can shift its focus to streamable services — a model that other entertainment providers would do well to follow. HBO views its high piracy rate as a badge of honor and have used it as a publicity tool, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Sunday’s leak is a good thing.
The reason why the “Game of Thrones” leak is so unfortunate is because it is at the expense of a company that is incredibly customer conscious, and it affects the viewing experience. The episodes were going to be available online after they aired either way, but having them released so far in advance almost dulls the excitement of a new season. If the entire season were leaked at one time, it might be different, but with only four episodes available, impatient fans who seek out the leaked material will find themselves waiting a whole month until episode five airs.
Netflix has experimented with releasing an entire season at once with great results. But the tactic doesn’t work as well when every episode isn’t available at the same time. This accidental marriage of the traditional weekly episode with the Netflix-style release benefits no one. Right now, providers are in an awkward phase because streaming online content is the obvious way of the future, but it’s such a new and precarious transition for them to make. The “Game of Thrones” leak is a perfect example of how traditionally paid cable content clashes with the online world.
In a few years, pirating may not be as necessary or desirable if impressive new services become available, and it’ll begin with the networks that our favorite shows are on. But until affordable, paid platforms with a vast amount of content become commonplace in order to sweeten the deal, pirating will not slow down. The “Game of Thrones” leak is just the most recent example of a piracy nightmare, and it won’t be the last.