Due to the relative inaccessibility of HBO in most parts of the world, hidden behind a cable subscription paywall, then a separate subscription just for the channel itself, the channel sees piracy rates like no other. That’s especially true for its most popular show, Game of Thrones, which is usually the most pirated program of the year, every year.
But this weekend, the show broke a piracy world record after one of the most talked about episodes ever aired. Everyone wanted to see what all the fuss was about at the royal wedding (no spoilers here), and as such, the episode was downloaded 1.5 million people downloaded the episode in the first day. The record? That 193,418 were sharing a single file of the episode simultaneously. The previous record was 171,572 people sharing one copy of the Game of Thrones season three finale.
So, this seems like a pretty big deal, and the fact that HBO already has a streaming service in place, HBO Go, would indicate that a solution to this problem is obvious. HBO should unlock Go from the need to have a cable subscription. $15 a month gets you unlimited access to all their programming, and no need to order 300 other channels you couldn’t care less about.
That’s the utopic view of the situation, but unfortunately it overlooks many important factors. The biggest one is that HBO is owned by Time Warner Cable, a cable company. They have little reason to encourage people to cancel their cable after they can get HBO by itself. Furthermore, they really don’t seem to care about Game of Thrones piracy much at all. Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes explains:
“Basically, we’ve been dealing with this issue for years with HBO, literally 20, 30 years, where people have always been running wires down on the back of apartment buildings and sharing with their neighbors,” he said. “Our experience is, it all leads to more penetration, more paying subs, more health for HBO, less reliance on having to do paid advertising… If you go around the world, I think you’re right, Game of Thrones is the most pirated show in the world. Well, you know, that’s better than an Emmy.”
When you see these sorts of record-breaking piracy numbers, it’s easy to think the end is nigh and HBO will wave the white flag. But I’ve written about this in the past. Even if piracy still exists, the war is essentially won. Most companies have realized that a pirated download does not automatically equal a lost sale. Many of these pirates wouldn’t subscribe to HBO Go even if it was standalone, as piracy is still easy and free. As such, the small number of converts wouldn’t be worth cutting ties between HBO and cable.
Not to say HBO doesn’t care about piracy at all. On torrent sites, HBO shows are constantly flagged and they’re one of the only channels that still sends people letters via their ISPs about illegal activity. I never hear about anyone getting actually fined or sued for piracy, but it’s clear they’re not completely rolling over.
And I won’t say that HBO will never release Go on its own. They’ve already experimented with doing so in some regions, experiments that are still ongoing, and it’s pretty clear to everyone that the bloated cable model is dying a (far too slow) death. It will not be around forever, and HBO is ahead of the game by at least already having a (mostly) functional streaming service like Go that can be spun-off when the time comes for TWC to throw in the towel.
But for now, Game of Thrones suffers an “acceptable” level of piracy that doesn’t really hurt the bottom line for HBO or Time Warner. As I said in my popular piece “You Will Never Kill Piracy, and Piracy Will Never Kill You,” it’s impossible for one side to completely wipe out the other. Piracy will never be stopped entirely, but neither will piracy take down the movie, television, music or video game industry. It’s just not possible. The “winners” of the piracy war have learned to simply ignore it for the most part, or even embrace it as HBO claims to.
Game of Thrones will be a massive success for likely its entire lifespan, and pirates serve as free marketing, just another group to tell the world how awesome the show is.