Good news for fans of HBO’s hit fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” The show is now available on Google Play, all for the low cost of $2.99 an episode. There’s just one problem: Episodes from season three, which wrapped up months ago, still aren’t online. Considering the “Game of Thrones” is arguably the most-pirated show in the world, this seems like a terrible anti-piracy strategy on HBO’s part.
While it's nice that fans can now purchase "Game of Thrones" in more formats than ever, the show is suffering from rampant piracy. If HBO wants to eliminate, or at least reduce, the number of people illegally downloading "Game of Thrones," it needs to work harder than this. In both 2012 and 2013, “Game of Thrones” was named the most pirated show in the world by TorrentFreak. The show’s season three finale “Mhysa” set new records for piracy. It’s clear that HBO has a major problem with getting fans to pay for its content, and simply slapping up old episodes on Google Play isn’t going to solve that.
Right now, fans can download episodes of the first two seasons of “Game of Thrones” on Google Play. Over on iTunes, they can purchase content from the more recent third season as well. “Game of Thrones” season four arrives in 2014, fans won’t be able to use these services to buy new episodes until much later in the year.
Presumably, “Game of Thrones” will follow the same release schedule on Google Play as it currently does on iTunes, meaning that new episodes won’t be available until months after they’ve already aired. The same goes for the DVDs. While season two finished airing in June 2012, DVDs and Blu-Rays didn’t arrive until February of this year. That’s at least an eight-month gap between a “Game of Thrones” episode’s initial airing and legal availability to non-HBO subscribers. The gap for season three was shorter, but fans still had to wait until the entire season ended to download episodes on iTunes.
The problem is that most fans don’t want to wait months to see that latest “Game of Thrones” episode. They want to see it as soon as possible so they can discuss the show with friends. Even more importantly, they want to see it as soon as possible so they can avoid spoilers.
Remember how the Internet exploded after last season’s Red Wedding? Imagine how difficult it must have been to remain unspoiled after the onslaught of memes, reaction videos and Facebook posts. “Game of Thrones” fans are almost required to follow the show live if they want to remain unspoiled. Except, as it turns out, fans can’t watch the show live without subscribing to HBO. They also can’t use the networks’ streaming service HBO Go without a cable subscription.
An increasingly large number of television fans have been abandoning the physical box in favor of subscription streaming services like Hulu Plus, Netflix and Amazon Prime. For these users, subscribing to HBO Go in order to watch “Game of Thrones” would mean buying both a cable subscription and a premium HBO membership for as much as $70 a month just to watch “Game of Thrones” legally for 10 weeks out of the year. Many viewers are unwilling to do that. And because HBO only makes legal downloads available after the season ends, they’re forced into piracy.
Looking at the number of live viewers to first-night downloaders, it’s clear that “Game of Thrones” watchers are desperate to see the show on its airdate, but unable to do so through legal channels. Most other shows feature far more live watchers than BitTorrent downloaders. “How I Met Your Mother,” for example, averages around 10.5 million live viewers and only 2.9 million downloaders. “Game of Thrones,” on the other hand, brings in approximately 5.2 million downloaders and 5.5 million legal viewers each episode -- a much larger number of illegal downloads for a show with a smaller overall viewership.
Clearly, fans are unhappy with the way HBO is distributing “Game of Thrones,” and putting the show on Google Play isn’t going to sate that anger.
An overwhelmingly easy solution to “Game of Thrones” piracy problem is to simply put new episodes up for sale on iTunes and Google Play the morning after they air. Fans would be able to cheaply, legally watch their favorite show with very little hassle.
If HBO is concerned that subscribers might ditch their HBO subscription for this method, they could even increase the price of a brand-new “Game of Thrones” episode. Perhaps a new episode could sell for $5 instead of $3. A number of fans would still pay the extra cost, and while it might not eliminate piracy, it would at least put a dent in illegal downloads while fattening HBO’s wallet. Marvel and DC Comics already take a similar approach with their digital comics, so why not try the same thing for “Game of Thrones?”
For whatever reason, however, HBO seems unwilling or unable to conveniently offer its content to viewers without a subscription, leaving millions of fans frustratedly searching the Pirate Bay on Sunday nights.
There is some good news for beleaguered “Game of Thrones” fans: It’s much cheaper to pick up copies of George R.R. Martin’s original books than it is to buy the DVDs. Plus, the books carry the added benefit of letting you gloat to your friends that you know exactly what’s going to happen to Joffrey this season.