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Game of Thrones: for HBO, piracy is ‘better than an Emmy’ as it battles Netflix

Eight years after the first season premiered, the long-awaited winter has finally come – Game of Thrones’ final season is here. The television series created by David Benioff and Daniel Brett Weiss from the books by George RR Martin has built a rich and complex multi-thread plot-knot of epic battles, of the living and the undead, of long owed-debts to be paid, and of the culmination of clan stratagems to win the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms.

But at the end of season seven in the autumn of 2017, it wasn’t the clan warfare that had us cliffhanging, but the thought of the army of undead white walkers and their zombie dragon bearing down on Westeros.

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Many millions of fans are waiting breathlessly for the denouement – and it’s a legion of fans that has grown exponentially over the eight-year run. In the US, for example, the audience has grown from 2.5m viewers in the first season (2011) to an average of 10.3m during season seven, which peaked at more than 12m viewers during the season seven finale on August 27, 2017.

Tyrion on trial. Helen Sloan © Home Box Office

According to MUSO, a magazine which specialises in piracy, the first episode of season seven alone was pirated 91.74m times and the season accumulated more than a billion illegal downloads a week after it ended.

So many people viewing outside of the official channels doesn’t just suggest the incredibly large audience GoT can attract, it also demonstrates the growth in illegal downloading of television shows – 11% last year – despite the effort of the streaming technologies to kill off piracy.

Piracy has its rewards

But this hasn’t necessarily been a problem for HBO. In 2013, the boss of Time-Warner (which owns HBO), Jeff Bewkes, declared that piracy was: “Better than an Emmy” because more people watching the show inevitably led to more people deciding to pay for subscriptions. He said:

We’ve been dealing with this for 20, 30 years – people sharing subs, running wires down the backs of apartment buildings. Our experience is that it leads to more paying subs. I think you’re right that Game of Thrones is the most pirated show in the world and that’s better than an Emmy.

Since then, GoT has repeatedly become the most pirated series of all time in every season. And with season seven this record was broken yet again.

Team of rivals: the clans unite in the face of a greater threat. Game of Thrones © 2019 Home Box Office, Inc.

Obviously, HBO has explored ways to reduce piracy: implementing participatory fan culture, using videos to advertise the DVD/Blue Ray box set, building “fan-art challenges”, or broadcasting episodes simultaneously around the world. Season five was seen in 173 countries simultaneously, enabling fans – pretty much anywhere in the world – to watch the show legally rather than having to pirate it.

But legal streaming has not reduced piracy as expected. Instead, the availability of so many streaming platforms has encouraged consumers back into piracy and while these platforms are strongly competing with each other for subscribers and for screentime, there are clearly millions of fans of Game of Thrones who are not prepared to pay for the privilege.

Battle of the Box

Meanwhile, the competition for the Iron Throne on the screen is paralleled – in the real world – by the epic struggle for supremacy in television production. Back in 2015, John Landgraf – CEO of FX Networks – complained that 400 new series were scheduled to air that year: “This is too much television,” he declared. And since then, the number of new series has only increased – Netflix alone aired more than 700 original productions in 2018, posing a clear threat to HBO’s empire.

For two decades, HBO was the indisputable ruler of television. The slogan “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” was backed up with the success of household name must-watch series such as The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000 – present) or Sex and the City (1998-2004).

But in 2018, for the first time in 17 years, HBO received fewer Emmy nominations than its main competitor – garnering 108 against Netflix’s 112. At the same time, Netflix gained 28m new subscribers, making a total of 139m around the world, whereas HBO Now, the streaming platform, reached 5m in February 2018.

Come fly with me: Daenerys takes a joyride with her dragon. ©2015 Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved.

So the battle is on – way beyond the kingdoms of Westeros. Viewers are now used to streaming services – and they have the means to escape the paywalls if they need to. The rise and rise of digital platforms has also broken the stranglehold of the traditional giants such as Disney, Time Warner and News Corp. Pretenders to the crown include some relative newcomers that are fast becoming household names: Netflix, Amazon, Google’s YouTube, and lately Snapchat and Apple are also turning to producing platforms in their own right.

The final season of Game of Thrones emerges at the centre of this ferocious competition. Whoever ends up on the throne in Westeros, one thing is clear – the battle for domination of our screens will rage on, pirates or no pirates.

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