The surprising reason Game of Thrones’ piracy problem is set to continue

It’s a never-ending story. (Picture courtesy of HBO.)

During the recent premiere of the highly anticipated seventh season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, many fan’s excitement flickered and died when the cable network’s main website went down for an excruciatingly long time just as the episode started.

In stead of the continuation of the story, a blank screen greeted them with an error message saying the site had problems loading. And if that wasn’t enough, the network’s over-the-top streaming services, HBO Now and HBO Go, were also experiencing outages all over Latin America. The loading bar that didn’t move and the video that didn’t buffer led to mass-hysteria on Twitter soon after. Disgruntled fans far and wide tweeted about their displeasure, even sharing pictures of their blank TV screens.

Big trouble in little Westeros

HBO’s online troubles couldn’t have come at a worse time. After production on the latest season was delayed for several months, global interest in the return to the fictional world of Westeros spiked on Sunday, just as the technical issues started. It’s understandable that the experience left a lot of fans angry, most likely leading them to find the episode elsewhere.

Over the last 48 hours, hundreds of thousands of people have flocked on to torrent and illegal streaming sites to watch the new episode. Once more the release of new Game of Thrones sent the pirating world into a download frenzy, likely cementing the medieval fantasy show’s fate of becoming the most-pirated show of the year. Again.

However, as TorrentFreak points out, 2017 is slightly different from previous years, because “the piracy landscape is much broader than before; the bonanza is clearly noticeable on streaming sites as well.” Minutes after the episode aired, torrent sites like The Pirate Bay, RARBG and 1337x had high-definition copies ready to share. In no time the fans came flocking in rocking up more than 130,000 downloads within hours after release.

Trying their very best

And it’s not like HBO hasn’t been trying to lessen the plague of piracy problems affecting their flagship show. In the weeks heading up to the premiere, the network announced various legal platforms audiences could watch the show on. This included direct streaming to various television networks all across the globe at the same time as the US as well as making the episode available on video-on-demand services like the cantankerous HBO Now.

In the end, it barely made a difference. Fans still rushed to illegal streaming sites and their favourite BitTorrent providers to download the new episode. Ironically, too, is the fact that everyone knew it was going to happen. About a week ago the personal-finance site published the results of a survey where they asked more than 2000 American adults how they were planning to watch the season premiere.

Fantastically, 5,2% of respondents indicated they will illegally stream or download it, with a further 0,2% saying they will obtain an illegal copy from a friend. Interestingly enough, the site also found that men are 56% more likely than women to watch Game of Thrones illegally. And of the 68% of Millennials that will watch the show, one in 20 indicated they will not pay for it.

A source at one of the world’s most popular illegal streaming sites told TorrentFreak that the premiere episode generated close to 20,000 views per hour. “And that’s just a single platform!”

Streaming to the future

Over the last year, streaming is fast becoming the norm for pirates. Besides the ease of access, it also poses another problem for those trying to control it. Streaming isn’t as easily traceable as traditional piracy.The increased popularity of set-top boxes for smart TVs armed with Kodi apps and add-ons is adding to this snowball effect.

Despite exact figures not being available, it’s fair to assume HBO lost hundreds of thousands of potentially paying customers over the last couple of days. Not even an increase in legitimate availability of the show all over the globe helped lessen the blow.

Game of Thrones has won dozens of awards since its debut six years ago, including a staggering 38 Emmy’s. But it also holds the honour of being the most pirated TV show ever with the season five opener being downloaded more than 1,5 million times within the first eight hours after broadcast. The season six opener followed closely behind with more than a million downloads within 12 hours after airing.

But will the Kingdom of Westeros reign supreme again this year in the piracy wars? Not even time can tell. TorrentFreak, who annually assembles the list of most pirated shows, recently admitted that due to the increase in illegal streaming it will be difficult to provide accurate numbers.

Luckily this problem is not affecting figures for legitimate views. HBO just announced that 10,10 million people watched Sunday’s episode on their various platforms in the US, setting a new record. That’s a significant bump from the 7,94 million people that tuned in for the season six premiere last year.

Despite the uptake, the network admits they’ve been struggling with the issue of piracy for years, but have learned to live with it. “For literally 20, 30 years people have always been running wires down the back of apartment buildings and sharing with their neighbours,” Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes told Forbes in 2014. “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.”

This article also appeared on the Custos Media Technologies blog, updated regularly.

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