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Why HBO Doesn't Care that Game of Thrones Is the Most Pirated Show Ever

Giving birth to a shadow industry hasn't hurt the bottom line.
Photo courtesy of HBO

In the 24 hour after the Game of Thrones season three finale (or shall we say, s03e10) aired on HBO Sunday, one million people illegally downloaded s03e10, securing Game of Thrones' title yet again as the most pirated TV show of the year. At one point 170,000 people were sharing the episode simultaneously on BitTorrent, breaking the show's own piracy record set after last season's premiere, TorrentFreak reported.

This level of piracy is unprecedented. Thing is, HBO doesn't mind at all. They may even be pleased. And that makes sense, if you look at the economics.


HBO is making bank off Game of Thrones. It's the network's most popular current show, surpassed only by The Sopranos in HBO history. An average of 13.6 million tune in—legally—every episode, and 5.4 million viewed this weekend's finale.

Shortly after season two's DVD set a record high for the network, HBO programming president Michael Lombardo told Entertainment Weekly piracy wasn't hurting revenue. “I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it is a compliment of sorts,” he said. “The demand is there. And it certainly didn’t negatively impact the DVD sales. [Piracy is] something that comes along with having a wildly successful show on a subscription network.”

He made sure to also mention that HBO is strongly against piracy, they're just "not sending out the Game of Thrones police." The comment raised eyebrows because most of the industry is, quite literally, sending out the piracy police. The "six strikes" copyright protection policy was recently implemented to crack down on illegal downloads specifically because they supposedly rob the entertainment industry of its rightful revenue. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones director David Petrarca recently shrugged off piracy concerns too, saying it actually helped drive sales by generating "cultural buzz" that could eventually turn into paying customers. So what gives, HBO?

Game of Thrones racks up such a uniquely high number of illegal downloads for a few reasons (other than the show being awesome). One is that there's a huge international audience, and fans overseas have to wait a whole year for each new season to come out. Most BitTorrent downloads come from Australia, TorrentFreak reports—enough to compel the U.S. Ambassador to Australia to call piracy as “epic and devious as the drama.”

The other reason, and here's where the money comes in, is HBO's insistence on exclusivity. Its shows aren't available on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon or anywhere other than HBO Go, which you of course need a cable subscription to access— unless you're sharing HBO Go logins, which you probably are. (Fun aside: Turns out it's actually legal to mooch off your family members' HBO account)

So if you don't want to pay for cable, plus the extra $15 for HBO on top, just to watch one show, you're shit out of luck. Fans of the sort that watch TV shows on laptops—likely the same sort that are really into Game of Thrones— are trying hard to convince HBO to offer a standalone online subscription, something the network said it might consider, but probably won't, because it makes no sense at all financially to do so.

HBO can't afford to sever its lucrative ties with cable industry, and would incur other costs like distribution, infrastructure and so on if it went rogue. “At this time, the economics simply don’t support a standalone HBO Go,” HBO co-president Eric Kessler told The New York Times last year. “We make our programming, including Game of Thrones, available on numerous platforms for our subscribers and then on DVD and electronic sell-through for those choosing not to subscribe to a TV provider.”

If networks insist on pushing people toward the hated and outdated business model of the overpriced cable package, it's simply naïve not to expect rampant piracy as the price. The internet's not going anywhere, and consumers aren't going to wait a year or shell out $60 a month for something they can get instantly and free, laws be damned. Die-hards will hope the striking number of illegal Game of Thrones downloads will expedite the cord-cutting revolution, but I don't expect HBO to budge anytime soon. The model is broken for the consumer, but not the company.