While hard and fast figures are tough to come by, it appears that the Game of Thrones season four premiere will become the most pirated TV episode of all time, racking up around one million downloads within 12 hours of the US airing, and a few million more in the days following.
People pirate TV shows, movies, games, and music for a variety of reasons, but it mostly boils down to just two core reasons: a) Money (legally obtaining the files can be untenably expensive), and b) Ease of use (many legally obtained files are locked down with DRM, preventing you from truly owning the files and doing whatever you want with them).
With these two factors in mind, let’s take a look at why people pirate Game of Thrones.
Legally watching Game of Thrones is expensive
Other than its inherent popularity, the main reason that Game of Thrones is pirated is because it can be very hard and expensive to legally watch in many countries around the world. While many shows eventually end up on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, Game of Thrones is distributed by HBO — and the only way to watch an HBO show is with an HBO subscription, or to wait for the eventual DVD/Blu-ray release.
TorrentFreak analyzed the cost of an HBO subscription in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands — and its findings are rather grim. In the US, HBO generally runs between $15 and $25 per month (so, ~$5 per episode) — but that’s before the cable/internet subscription (which puts it up to around $100 per month), and not including the fact that many subscriptions have a minimum contract of six or 12 months (so, the real range is around $40 to $120 per episode). In Australia, it’s even worse: The cheapest HBO package will run you $70 per month, with a minimum contract of six months. After some other added costs, it works out at roughly $50 for a single episode of Game of Thrones.
It’s a similar story in the UK, where it’ll cost you around $35 per month for an HBO subscription, with a minimum contract of 12 months, for a total of $42 per episode (remember, Game of Thrones only runs for 10 weeks). Canada gets HBO fairly cheaply ($18 per month), but you also need a digital or satellite TV subscription on top of that, putting the per-episode price up around US levels. In the Netherlands, the situation is actually not too bad: You can pick up Game of Thrones for around $9 per month, and some providers allow you to cancel your subscription at any time.
Obviously, if you’re in Australia, very few people in their right mind would pay $50 per episode, or $500 for the season — and so they download the show instead. (Rather unbelievably, the corporate director of Foxtel, the Australian provider of HBO, believes that it’s completely OK to charge $50 per episode.) It’s a similar story in the US, UK, and Canada, where you’re probably paying upwards of $40 per episode. Really, though, it’s the total subscription costs that you need to look at — you can just about justify $50 per episode, but being locked into a $500+ multi-month contract is insane.
As you can imagine, there are a lot of people in the world who really want to watch Game of Thrones but don’t have $500+ to spare.
But is it really that simple?
By this point, you’re probably aware that I’ve oversimplified things to tell a more dramatic story. When you pay ~$30 per month for that HBO package, you usually get a bunch of other channels as well. Yes, being locked into a $60-per-month internet/cable subscription bumps up the price — but you’d need that internet access to pirate the show.
This is where the second major cause of piracy — ease of use — enters the picture. Yes, you get lots of other TV shows as part the subscription bundle, but that’s just not how we consume media any more. We don’t want to buy a huge batch of things and then slowly work our way through it all, including the gristly bits that we don’t like — we live in an age where we choose exactly what we want to consume, and when we want to consume it. If HBO made individual episodes of Game of Thrones available to purchase worldwide for $5 immediately after it airs in the US, then piracy would drop dramatically. If those files also lacked DRM, allowing you to move them between your smartphone and home theater setup freely, piracy would probably become a non-issue overnight.
The thing is, HBO knows this. Broadcasters around the world know this. The various rights holders (actors, writers, authors) know this. But still, HBO does nothing about it. Why? Because, as flawed as the system appears to be, it still works. HBO is still making tons of money ($5 billion in 2013), as are the various worldwide broadcasters and rights holders. Game of Thrones is massively popular, driving huge levels of piracy — but also large amounts of DVD and merchandise sales. Yes, broadcast TV could probably be done in a better way (see: Netflix and House of Cards), but the current status quo is obviously still working in HBO’s favor — so why rock the boat?