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Do Not Pass HBO GO: A Game of Thrones Monopoly

A million people downloaded Game of Thrones on Sunday night, and none of them gave HBO a cent. Joffrey wouldn’t stand for such insolence.

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If, for some bizarre reason, you’ve been attempting to navigate the world with your eyes screwed shut these past few weeks, then you might not be aware that Sunday night saw the return of HBO’s Game of Thrones (although you would be well versed in the dangers of coffee tables and shins). In the US alone, a record 6.6 million people helped the show to reach its highest-ever viewing figures, whilst simultaneously beating off nearly every other programme in the network’s history (coming second only to the finale of The Sopranos). Pretty impressive stuff.

But there’s another figure that HBO don’t want you to talk about.A figure that is far smaller, and yet in many ways, is far more impressive. It’s the number of people that, according to piracy blog TorrentFreak, downloaded the season premiere in the hours immediately following its appearance online. That number? One million. (Well, just a little over, actually).

Compared to the viewing figures, it might be easy to brush aside that number as an ‘acceptable loss’. After all, it’s a successful show, and isn’t an element of piracy almost expected nowadays? How much of an impact does piracy have on a network, anyway?

Whatever They Want

If you’re someone like Netflix, turns out quite a lot. “With the purchase of a series, we look at what does well on piracy sites,” claimed Kelly Merryman, Netflix’s Vice President of Content Acquisition, in an interview with Dutch tech site Tweakers during their September 2013 rollout in the Netherlands. At that time, they had recently acquired the rights to Prison Break, and Merryman made it clear that the high demand for the show on torrent networks played directly into that decision. “Prison Break is exceptionally popular on piracy sites,” she said.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has chimed in with similar views. “Certainly there’s some torrenting that goes on, and that’s true around the world, but some of that just creates the demand,” he told Tweakers in a separate interview. “Netflix is so much easier than torrenting. You don’t have to deal with files, you don’t have to download them and move them around. You just click and watch.”

In many ways, it’s similar to the tactic employed by Steve Jobs when Apple launched iTunes for the first time back in 2001. Make something simpler and quicker to do lawfully, and folk will stop illegally downloading the content. Given the rise of services such as Amazon Instant Video, Hulu and Spotify, it’s hard to argue that there’s not a hefty demand. Indeed, Netflix have claimed to have reduced illegal torrenting in Canada by 50% since launching there.

So why is Game of Thrones in particular continually topping the illegal downloads charts? Having taken home the award in 2012 and 2013 for Most Pirated Show (and bang on track to make it three years running), what is it about this programme that has so many flocking to their BitTorrent clients? 

A Big Ask

Without a doubt, it’s a fantastic show, but many people don’t want to subscribe to HBO just for one programme. An extra $15 a month for a single channel – on top of a necessary $50 basic cable package – is a lot to ask when people can pay $2 to Amazon or iTunes to get the latest episodes of AMC’s Mad Men or The Walking Dead the day after they air. And it’s not just basic cable; like HBO, Showtime is a premium subscription channel – but that doesn’t stop Homeland from appearing on other platforms hours after transmission.

None of which mentions the difficulty with viewing HBO outside the USA. Here in the barren wilderness, whilst a few international networks have partnered up with HBO – Sky in the UK, for instance – far more have not. That leaves millions of people with no legal way to tune in each week and an internet connection just begging to be used.

But wait, don’t HBO have their own streaming service? Complete with every programme they produce available to view on demand, as soon as they’ve aired? They do, but if you’re going to go up against the big players, you need to bring your A-game – and this is the major area in which the network has continually struggled. Enter: HBO GO.

A New Challenger Appears

As their only way of viewing HBO programming outside of the channel, HBO GO suffers from a number of problems. The first two are old familiars – cost and availability. Access to HBO GO is included with a subscription to the channel, but as mentioned above this is going to put you back around $65 a month total. And you have to be within the USA to log onto the site. 

Which brings us to the primary reason that piracy levels for Game of Thrones is so high: it is impossible to watch any of their content except on platforms they can control. You will never see Curb Your Enthusiasm on Netflix, or Boardwalk Empire on Amazon Instant Video. Sure, certain places such as iTunes will allow you to download the episodes, but only after a good few months have passed – far too late to really put anyone off pirating it. 

Not to mention that HBO GO is a pretty dire piece of software. Time and again the internet is flooded with angry posters whose viewing experience was all-too-frequently interrupted by the dreaded ‘buffering’. It plagued the finale of True Detective and it plagued the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. Hardly makes for pleasant watching, even if there is a certain irony to the service buckling under the numbers of people using it – with torrents, more downloads means more users, which means more sharing, which means faster downloads. A self-fulfilling loop of speed, and another tick in piracy’s box. So how can HBO combat this?

The Easy Solution

Well, it’s pretty simple: stick it up on Netflix. Or Amazon Instant Video. Or Hulu Plus. Or iTunes. Or anywhere. Get the content out there swiftly after airing, make it easily available to people, and watch them pay you for the privilege. It’s the Prison Break scenario all over again – once it was possible to stream it, everyone was a winner. Fox got a chunk of change from Netflix, who got a chunk of change from subscribers, who were happy not to navigate through adverts for penis enlargements or chat boxes from crowds of sex-starved girls that just happened to have moved in a few streets away and really want to talk.

But despite years of pleading from other distributors, HBO have refused to do this, instead choosing to be the exclusive provider themselves – which is no bad thing in theory. If the infrastructure isn’t there to deliver the content, however, people will stop using it. Look at Breaking Bad’s final season – when it was arguably at its peak. No UK network was airing it, and rather than let an entire country turn to torrents, Netflix stepped in and had it up for instant streaming the next morning after it aired. They realised that there was a demand for it – and that if they made it easy for people to watch, people would choose that over downloading. I certainly did, and I wonder how many people subscribed purely for the one show. A hell of a lot, I’d wager.  

Not All Doom and Gloom

But let’s not get too carried away here. It’s far easier now to download shows illegally than it was ten years ago, or even five. The rise of newsgroups and pirate services like XBMC, for instance, have taken away most of the difficulty in disseminating content. And providers outside the USA are catching on to the idea that people no longer want to wait weeks or months after a show has debuted Stateside. Sky in the UK offered up the newest episode of Game of Thrones at 2am Monday morning, in a rare example of simulcasting, with subsequent episodes airing in the evening. Will I bother pirating the show this year? Probably not.

Which begs the question: is piracy really a concern to HBO? After the ratings for the Season 4 premiere, arguably not. But is their dedication to controlling every aspect of their content stifling their progress instead of driving growth? Almost certainly. If HBO want to offer their own streaming service, that’s fine. But be sure the infrastructure is in place to handle the demand. And find a way to offer it to people beyond subscribers – people will pay money to watch each episode the next day if it is made easy enough. To me, there’s no difference between doing that and selling a bluray box set further down the road. The former method even allows control over pricing, costs less and will net a larger return per purchase. Why isn’t this happening now? 

Is it fair that so many people turn to piracy just because they have to pay to see a show? No. Shouldn’t HBO be allowed to charge viewers to access their content? Of course. Isn’t there an inherent selfishness in piracy? Undoubtedly yes, but at the end of the day it is what it is. HBO need to realise that restricting access to content doesn’t drive people to subscription, it drives people to piracy.

A million people downloaded Game of Thrones on Sunday night, and none of them gave HBO a cent. Joffrey wouldn’t stand for such insolence, and neither should they. 

Television

Homelander is humanity’s most accurate superhero

Amazon’s hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes is a painfully accurate takedown of humanity

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If you haven’t yet seen Amazon Studios’ hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes, proceed at your own risk. But if you haven’t seen The Boys yet, why not? It’s not-so-quietly the best television show of 2019 and its painfully accurate depiction of what superheroes would really be like in our world is gloriously funny and poignant. You best get on it.

With that said, The Boys IS 2019’s best television show, and while it may not be the most easily digestible show (if you prefer your superhero television to be Supergirl type corny, you’re probably in for a bit of a shock), those who venture through its visceral 8-episode first season will no doubt be left in awe. Based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name, The Boys tells the story of a group of nogoodniks led by Karl Urban’s brute Billy Butcher, who takes the seemingly hapless Hughie (played by Jack Quaid) on a vigilante mission to avenge the death of his girlfriend. Along the way “The Boys” set out to expose the fake news facade of the superheroes in the series’ world. These so-called heroes, backed by mega-corporation Vought International, are Earth’s premier team of superheroes. On the surface, they act like the Marvel Avengers / DC Justice League team, but in reality, are just a colossal mess of frail egos and giant assholes whose appearances are kept up to keep the money-making wheels spinning.

The story unfolds in glorious violence, capped by slow-mo gory deaths, shattered limbs, and enough sex and psychotherapy to make old “Skinemax” television blush. But what’s most telling about the series is the accurate characterisation of what it means to be a hero in the real world. “The Seven” (Vought’s Avengers) are led by the very Captain America/Superman-esque Homelander; a stoic, blond, barrel-chested hero for America that waves and kisses babies on camera, but away from it, is a fragile, colossal asshole egomaniac with severe Freudian issues. The latter become one of the focal points of the series’ narrative arc and are a small but telling dimension of the layers you find within this show. He’s surrounded by likeminded assholes; sexual deviant The Deep (if one of the characters from Gossip Girl ended up becoming Aquaman), sexual deviant Translucent (if Invisible Man was a chronic sex-pest) and murdering drug-addict A-Train (if The Flash was… well, a murdering drug addict). The only one who presents with any form of likeability are Queen Maeve and newcomer Starlight. The latter, integral to the story, is a good girl Christian superhero who discovers like most of us, The Seven aren’t who they make out to be.

Over the eight episodes of the first season, we come to the sad and painful realization that if superheroes were to exist in our reality, that this would be it. Intentionally or not, this commentary is one of the most compelling parts of this series. It’s beautifully cynical, but at the same, cuts right to the heart of the truth of our society. The Marvel Universe has spoiled us with dreams of heroic saviors, but in reality, we would get and deserve much less.

Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universes are often too good to be true; cavorting around like false prophets. In times when humanity turns against them (Batman vs. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Far From Home), they react with some level of empathy for the reactions of the general public. Superman exiles himself in Batman vs Superman while The Avengers attempt to self-police in Civil War; all are actions of self-sacrificing their worth for the greater good. Their hope is that public opinion will turn once people realize the truth. Homelander is nothing like that, and often in The Boys, his good public persona will reveal his true self the moment he faces situations that harm his likeness, value, and/or monetary worth. It’s how most people would react no matter how much they tell you they wouldn’t. In all of Homelander’s inhuman superpowers, his most telling characteristic are his most human ones; selfish, egotistical, greedy, self-absorbed. They are not positive qualities, but they are very real.

You may be thinking that this is an overly cynical view on humanity, but the old adage of the truth hurting is ever present through the series. The Boys‘ socio-political commentary isn’t even about specific politics or people- even though you can equate it to them. It’s broader, more sweeping in its assessment that no matter your political views, no matter your race or creed, you are nowhere near as heroic or “good” as you think you are. “The Boys” themselves, of course, are a band of anti-hero criminals and outcasts that help confirm that even the people “doing good” aren’t all that good themselves. As the series points out, we are all just different sides of the same coin.

It’s all just a helpful reminder that in a world filled with liars, charlatans, hacks, and grifters, there are no real heroes and those looking to become one just end up getting burned. The Boys is a compelling look into the mirror of society; refreshing, invigorating, and painfully true. It is the truth we are all afraid to face wrapped in relatable costumes and transient power. I suppose we could keep telling ourselves that we’re nothing like the people and “heroes” in The Boys, but then we’d just be lying to ourselves. It’s in part, what makes Homelander humanity’s most accurate superhero. If that’s not enough for you, then watch it for Karl Urban calling everyone a “c*nt” for eight episodes.

The Boys is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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Another Case of Willed Amnesia: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue

Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work

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At a concert in New Haven on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, someone in the crowd repeatedly shouted “Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan!”, just as the artist was setting up for a reworked version of “Tangled Up in Blue”. Dylan, in character as ever, replied: “No, I don’t think so. I think you’ve got me mistaken for someone else.”

This story appears in Time Out of Mind by the late Ian Bell, Dylan’s greatest biographer. Bell wrote perceptively about that tour, its participants, and what it might have meant, if anything at all. It’s helpful to have a guide, as Dylan wasn’t especially clear on things at the time, and is even less so now. At least at first glance.

What, exactly, was that legendary tour all about? In an early scene in Martin Scorsese’s unmissable Netflix documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Dylan tells the viewer:

“It’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened forty years ago. And that’s the truth of it . . . I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born, you know?”

Here, separated by decades, are two amusing and obviously insincere denials of Dylan’s participation in his own tour. Not since Dylan growled “Must Be Santa” on the Christmas in the Heart album have so many fans been left scratching their heads. What the hell is he up to now?

With perspicacity, Bell described the tour as;

“a kind of erratic developing essay on identity, on disguises, on human contact. The concerts would also be, by turns, pretentious, acute, self-indulgent and enthralling. Rolling Thunder would become a piece of theatre, a radical artistic gesture, a travelling circus, a movable movie set, a gypsy caravan and the realisation, intermittently, of a superstar’s old dream of creative emancipation. That was the general idea, at any rate.”

Scorsese has brilliantly captured and expanded these ambitions. And it’s quite a clever setup. We’re introduced to the central cast: Joan Baez, whom Dylan memorably describes as looking “like she’s just come down from a meteorite”; Allan Ginsberg, the beat poet of piffle, whose empty philosophising hints that maybe the tour wasn’t really about anything serious at all; and the absolutely mesmerising Scarlet Rivera, whose allure and haunting violin steal the viewer’s attention in every scene.

The unknown Rivera, as the story goes, was exiting her building when Dylan saw her with a violin case. He invited her to an all-night rehearsal, and she eventually joined the tour and became famous. Even though it sounds like fiction, or at least imaginatively embellished, that story is actually true. Much of the rest of the film, the real stuff, anyway, is interspersed with some rather inventive bullshit.

Dylan and Scorsese begin to introduce some other characters and talking heads, and their participation should immediately cause the raising of eyebrows, as well as a wry smile.

Stefan van Dorp, a haughty European filmmaker who allegedly contributed to a behind-the-scenes look at the tour, appears frequently to offer insights, claim unrecognised credit, and disparage everyone else. His unused footage is what we’re watching, and he even seems to have been there, in 1975, chatting with Dylan, Patti Smith, and various concert-goers.

He’s an actor, though. They all are, even the real ones. At one point, the older Dylan misnames him as van Dorf. An underage and mischievous Sharon Stone was there, too, apparently, as well as the former Congressman Jack Tanner.

A number of guides have already arrived on the Internet, alerting viewers to what’s true and what’s fake. The giveaway, after all, was always in the title: A Bob Dylan Story. This was never going to be a documentary with a concern for historical veracity.

And nor should we expect it to be, really. A straightforward recounting of events as they happened would somehow seem, well, out of character. Dylan doesn’t do things twice. Bell called this willed amnesia – Dylan’s commitment to a performance in the moment, and then its abandonment. Despite its success, there was never a repeat of Rolling Thunder. Bell noted:

Dylan had no patience whatever for the idea that he might, now and then, retrace his steps. The revue meant a lot to him while it was happening; when it was gone, it was gone.”

The French writer Paul Valéry claimed that an artist never finishes a poem; he merely abandons it. Dylan’s willed amnesia is a kind of rejoinder to that. At the Rolling Thunder concerts, Dylan began to reimagine and rewrite his own songs with new lyrics, melodies, and meanings. Bell observed that Dylan had been toying with this beforehand, but in 1975, it became a permanent feature. In the documentary, we see and hear the country ballad “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You” transformed into a blistering hard rock number. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” receives the same treatment, and a new energy. In “Tangled Up in Blue“, a change of voice, from first person to third, also seems to change everything.

Willed amnesia allows Dylan to reflect, at the finish, on what remains of the tour now:

“Nothing. Not one single thing. Ashes.”

That’s true, in a sense. But it’s also true to say that Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work. It’s also a reminder, not that we really needed one, that no one, especially in what passes for music in today’s scene, does things like Bob Dylan. Despite his protestations, you certainly couldn’t mistake him for anyone else.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is streaming now on Netflix.

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