The first four episodes of “Game of Thrones’” fifth season leaked beyond the wall of HBO Now’s domain last weekend, as confirmed by the browsing history of any college student you pass on the street on your way to class.
With each episode costing about $6 million in production, HBO’s executives have been surprisingly cavalier about the ring of piracy surrounding the third most expensive television series of all time. When “The Purple Wedding” set a world record in 2014 after a single file was shared by 193,418 people at the same time, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes said it was better than an Emmy.
“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 told Forbes Magazine. “Our experience is it all leads to more penetration, more paying subs, more health for HBO, less reliance on having to do paid advertising.”
What makes this time different, of course, is that instead of reposting a recently aired episode, someone in “Game of Thrones’” inner circle let almost half a season slip. Unfortunately, the dominant theory seems to be that HBO trusted the wrong member of the press with pre-season review material. Still, Bewkes comments make it seems like HBO might actually know what it’s doing with the new HBO Now streaming service.
Right or wrong (okay, wrong), it’s a pretty ridiculous investment to pay $15 a month for something I could get for free from the nearest search engine. I plan to get my own Netflix account when I move out this summer, but that’s just $8 for countless shows, movies and comedy specials. All HBO Now has to offer is “Game of Thrones” — if I’m going to pay $45 for three months of service, I might as well wait and buy the box set again, at least that way I can rewatch it in the future.
HBO has to know that. In fact, they’ve probably realized that no matter how cheap they make HBO Now, a certain subset of their audience just isn’t going to buy it — at least, not the first time around. Jonathan D. Rose, an intellectual property litigator featured in Nashville, said that while money is being lost to piracy, that doesn’t mean that every pirated show or movie represents a lost sale.
“Would the college student watching the pirated movie download have otherwise seen the movie in the theater, subscribed to Netflix or bought the DVD?” Rose told Forbes Magazine. “Would the person buying a pirated DVD at a Chinese market actually have bought the genuine article otherwise? The answers to such questions are hard to determine. But it does seem fair to assume that not every pirated copy of an audiovisual work represents lost revenue to the content producer.”
According to a study by Columbia University’s American Assembly, the 45 percent of U.S. citizens who regularly pirate media buy DVDs and online subscription services just as often as anyone else. When it comes to music, they (or should I say we?) actually buy 30% more legal tunes.
This means HBO can pump what should be a $5 subscription services up to $15, make a quick buck off the moralistic crowd, and keep the content flowing. It’s not ideal, but Bewkes was right about piracy leading to greater penetration of the market: if pirates without access to a TV Sunday nights couldn’t access “Game of Thrones” online, many would simply choose not to watch it at all.
Piracy may not be a victimless crime — HBO doesn’t spend $6 million on an episode of “Game of Thrones” as a public service, after all — but it demonstrates a disconnect between content providers and their audience.
In the age of Spotify, there’s no reason to go through the endless dance of iTunes updates and iCloud malfunctions. If you can download Steam, no one needs to put up with GameStop’s sorry excuse for a refund policy. Just the same, when “Downton Abbey” releases new episodes online the night after they air and “Mad Men” is a Netflix staple, $15 a month for one hit series isn’t a good deal anymore.
Google “watch game of thrones season 5” and HBO’s website is the last hit on the page. If I watch season 5 at all before it hits the shelves of Amazon, you can bet it won’t be there. “Game of Thrones,” “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men” are all quality series worth going all in on to secure a chance of experiencing them again in the future, but I’m not about to make that investment sight unseen.
It may not be fair, it may be yet another example of modern “entitlement,” but that’s the way it is and HBO is making the most of it.