Some may say it’s bad for HBO that half of Season 5’s Game of Thrones has already leaked online, but the cabler seems to find that as something to be proud and not something that has hurt ratings for the show. Even Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes commented that their experience with piracy has been far from bad and has usually let to more paying subscriptions while also less money being paid on marketing and advertising. Word of mouth is very strong for the show no matter what and people watching a pirated copy are usually bound to watch it on tv as a second viewing where quality can be much better.
After appearing online yesterday afternoon, the episodes have already been downloaded almost 800,000 times, and that figure will likely blow past a million downloads by the season 5 premiere tonight.
Game of Thrones has consistently set records for piracy, which has almost been a point of pride for HBO. Last year, when it was announced HBO set a world record for illegal downloads after the season four premiere, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes had this to say.
“Our experience is [piracy] 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.”
It’s a refreshing view of piracy as a means of audience engagement, but that was in reference to the ability of pirates to upload episodes of Game of Thrones shortly after they air, and this is a different situation in which four episodes have leaked weeks before the later ones were supposed to air.
How this happened isn’t a mystery. The press has had their hands on four episodes worth of press screeners for a while now, so someone that was trusted with those review materials clearly should not have been. We see this happen every single year with screeners for the top Oscar nominated films, but to my knowledge, Game of Thrones hasn’t had to deal with this kind of leak before.
It’s an uncomfortable position for HBO who is really relying on this new season of Game of Thrones to push their $15 a month, standalone HBO Now service. But now pirates who may have been considering making the switch to a legal means of consumption can now watch the first four episodes of the show right this moment, so it may negate their motivation to try out Now.
In the end, I doubt this will be all that big of a deal. Game of Thrones has endured an enormous amount of piracy to date, and it’s more popular than ever. I doubt this leak will change that, or greatly affect HBO’s viewership for tonight’s premiere. The fact is, even if someone manages to watch almost half the season today, they would have to wait an entire month for more, as presumably HBO won’t send out any late-season screeners like this.
For anyone who calls themselves a true fan, watching four episodes of the show right now and waiting a month for the others is an awful way to experience the show, in my estimation. If the entire season leaked online, I wouldn’t blame many who wanted to binge watch, but only the first 40%? That’s just awkward, and I would imagine it’s more fun to just spend the next month watching week to week as nature intended, even if you are watching illegally. Game of Thrones is one of the last true “event” shows where it’s something you want to talk about Sunday night or Monday morning with friends and strangers alike. It’s a core part of the experience.
But now the cat is out of the bag for at least the first four episodes, and given that this is the first time the show will start to make major departures from the books, or dive into completely unwritten territory, that could produce some important spoilers for both show watchers and book readers, depending on what happens in this first batch of episodes. Needless to say, I haven’t gone hunting to see what these first four episodes contain, and plan on simply watching the premiere tonight like everyone else.
In this case, just because you can watch something leaked illegally, it doesn’t mean you should. I’m not making the moral argument here, as that’s a can of worms I don’t want to open, but just in terms of enjoying the show as it was intended to be released, binge watching a month’s worth of episodes and then waiting a month for more is a poor viewing experience.
In the future, I suspect HBO may be a bit more restrictive about handing out Game of Thrones screeners to press, given the event-like nature of the show and its reliance on keeping spoilers close to the chest. I’ve read various articles about critics’ “impressions” of the first four episodes, but I really don’t see why commentary like that needs to exist in the first place. In my estimation, TV reviews are for discussion and analysis after an episode airs, exactly when everyone wants to talk about it. Why do we need vague hints about what’s to come in the first portion of the season? I don’t see how that does anyone any good, and in the case of Game of Thrones, it’s not as if the show needs extra hype.
Plus, anyone in the media knows that the screener quality is not near as good as what you’ll find on your television. Especially if you have a 4K Sony which is the way Game of Thrones was meant to be viewed!