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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

Swamp Thing: The Futility of Saving a Good Thing

DC’s best show, Swamp Thing, creeps to its death with no one to save it

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Swamp Thing, the only good television show DC has produced in decades was abruptly canceled after just one episode. Despite glowing reviews and a small but devoted following, hopes for its survival and saving are unfortunately as futile as the idea of DC making good television and knowing what to do with it. It’s not like I haven’t given DC TV a chance either. But after countless attempts at trying to enjoy Arrow or Supergirl, hoping that one of their myriad of poor crossovers would ignite a desire to watch more, my hopes are all but dead in the swamp after they pulled the plug on the only good property they have. To make matters worse, Swamp Thing is not only great, but it was great right out of the gate- gripping, dark, and intoxicating. A wonderfully violent change to the cartoonish junk that DC is associated with.

When I was a kid, I remember watching the 1990 USA Network series of the same name. I drew to it on the back of my love for the Toxic Avenger and all things mutated humans. Sure, it was kitschy, but what television show from the ’90s wasn’t? Perhaps it was waiting for the right time or the right production, but the long-dormant franchise found new life in 2019. Produced by James Wan (who does horror well, big blockbusters, not so much), Swamp Thing has proven to be the very best of superhero television. Coated in dirty swamp green hues, it is beautifully gritty, and when it dives into the subject material, it does so with the fervor- unafraid of exploring mysticism and the darkness of the human soul. The new series follows the familiar story; scientist Alec Holland is turned into the Swamp Thing after meeting his untimely demise. Over the course of the series, he battles the demons and history of the swamp while trying to understand his new place in the world, flanked by familiar characters like Abby Arcane (the terrific Crystal Reed). The cast of the new series is rounded nicely with a slew of recognized faces – Virginia Madsen, Will Patton, Ian Ziering(!), Jennifer Beals – that adds to the series’ sense of gravitas. And regardless of whether you’re a long time fan of the creation, whether you’ve seen the original 1982 movie or watched the series in the 90s, this current iteration stands leagues above- which makes its cancellation all the more infuriating.

Television that resonates, like the current love for HBO’s Chernobyl, is driven by the desire to understand the deep seeded flaws of humankind and what critics have called; “a creeping dread that never dissipates“. It’s true to the latter that as you traverse the murky episodes of Swamp Thing, the crawl of inescapable horror and impending doom is ever looming. Like the swamps in which it festers in, the series slowly wraps its vines around your feet, character by character, mystery by mystery, and before you can scream for help its dragged you helplessly into the bayou.

It’s gutting to know that these 10 episodes are all we’re going to get, made more painful by the fact that this count was already cut down from the original 13-episode run. The show’s cancellation has been attributed to money of course. Early speculation pointed to errors in accounting, but in truth, most have said that the rising cost of production and the uncertainty of the DC Universe platform itself ultimately led to the show’s demise. The difficulty of an expensive, well-produced show is perhaps, far too great of a risk for a fledgling streaming service. One whose intellectual property is already average at best, hampered by the disastrous cinematic run of their most noted ones. Their TV often leaves me wondering how on Earth they have run for so long. My attempt at watching Legends of Tomorrow was spent laughing at the pilot’s campy cartoonishness. It was so bad that the idea of watching this series would be weekly self-flagellation. I wish The Flash was good (I enjoyed the 1990s series), Supergirl could be good if it wasn’t so afraid of offending anyone, and every time I think maybe Arrow could salvage the DC’s television property I’m reminded how terrible it is (if you google “Arrow is a terrible show” you will know my opinion is not a solitary one).

Abby Arcane
Crystal Reed stars as Abby Arcane

I’m not alone in wanting Swamp Thing to live. Fans were outraged by the immediate cancelation, and cast and crew of the show couldn’t believe it either. Unfortunately, we live in a world where network execs and bean counters are, as expected, more concerned about the tightening bottom line and the immense amount of content already out there. Why invest so much money into a quality niche product when you trot out B-grade characters in dopey costumes for 7+ seasons on the cheap? Sure, there’s a petition out there to #SaveSwampThing, and while I’m happy to sign it, a big part of me knows that it is just not feasible to save such an expensive and complicated undertaking. There’s just a sense of futility to it all, that while you can see a network saving average, cheaper fare like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or even Lucifer (why?), the thought of saving something as big as this is just unlikely. Is there hope for another network or service to pick it up? I don’t even think spend-happy Netflix are willing to put money behind a quality product when its easier to make crap Adam Sandler movies and incredibly generic racial pandering tripe. It’s too late for Swamp Thing. The swamp has literally been drained. And that’s a damn shame.

Good television lives in the darkness. It lives in the darkness of humanity and the darkness of our imaginations. Pick any great television property and you find will find it; Stranger Things, Westworld, The Wire, Breaking Bad. And for the first time, DC has found their darkness but clearly, have no idea. To make matters worse, we will probably get 5+ seasons of that horrendous looking Batwoman show.

Perhaps in a perfect world Swamp Thing would have been produced by a competent network. Perhaps in a perfect world, comic book television would be given the chance to flourish next to noted television that becomes regular discourse in our socialverse. Unfortunately, we won’t be finding out anytime soon. Netflix’s Marvel series’ limped to their end, and now DC, with the golden opportunity to become the torch bearer of great superhero television has once again shown why they are DC.

Fans of mystery and horror will find so much to love in Swamp Thing. It is a series that isn’t afraid to dive deep into the murk, bound by great writing and distinct and memorable visuals. It’s infuriating as you watch each episode knowing it creeps slowly to its end. From the house of secrets the Swamp Thing was born, and now in a shroud of uncertainty and unanswered questions, it dies again.

Swamp Thing airs on the DC Universe streaming service.

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Netflix’s Street Food is a disjointed but sincere ode

Netflix’s Street Food is a disjointed, but sincere ode

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One of my fondest memories of growing up in Jakarta are the times I spent parked on the side of the road, perched on the front seat of my car, door ajar, with a bowl of hot, freshly cooked chicken noodles (mie ayam) on my lap. It wasn’t just the incredibly immersive palette of flavors a good bowl of mie ayam had, but it was that I could easily pull up on the side of the road next to a street food vendor and have one of the best, most memorable meals one can have.

Street food, of course, is not unique to any one country. It is an idea that Netflix’s Street Food series aims to bring to light. Produced by David Gelb and Brian McGinn (the same producers as Netflix’s Chef’s Table), Street Food shares the idea that across the globe the myriad of wonderful foods, personalities, and historical culture can be found around the corner, in the unlikeliest of places, made by the unlikeliest of people. This is the series’ strength. Street Food Vol 1. spends its nine episodes across Asia, from Singapore to Yogyakarta, from Osaka to Delhi, exploring the rich foods you find on their streets. But the strongest connection you’ll find is with that of the people profiled in the episodes. Sure, the food is irresistible, but it is the very human stories this series profile that make it worthwhile.

We meet Grace in Chiayi, Taiwan, who had dreams of escaping small city life, only to find herself back home running her family’s street food restaurant that specializes in fish head soup. There’s is an inescapable sadness as Grace tells of her lost opportunity in the big city of Taipei, but we are overcome when she’s found happiness at home, expanding, modernizing, and running the business she’s known since she was a child. We meet Truoc in Ho Chi Minh City, who after a family tragedy, found it overwhelmingly difficult to find passion in her work. But a passion re-found when her hard work and perseverance enabled her son to attend university. In Seoul, there is Yoonsun Cho, whose incredible 11-year work as a street food seller at the market got her family out of bad debt, seeing her son attend culinary school, and seeing him take up a job at an upscale hotel. This is alongside stories like the purported-last ‘3 day 3 night goat stew’ chef on the planet (seeing how toxic and life-threatening this process is, it’s not hard to understand why). These are the stories that make this series interesting, and it takes cues from what we loved about Anthony Bourdain’s take on global food. He was not there just for the food, but he was there to understand, listen to, and discover the people, their histories and their cultures.

The cinematic Netflix production helps with the series’ presentation, but where it struggles is to find cohesion within the episodes. You get narrators for each episode, individuals who are locals or familiar with the food and culture, but as you hear the stories of the vendors, the production employs cheesy voice-overs that sound robotic. I would rather have let the vendors speak, in their natural tongues with subtitles instead (which strangely, they do at times). Another gripe is their instagramesque presentation of their signature dishes that give the show a less than genuine feel. It’s a shame because it takes away from the narrative of the vendors and takes viewers away from the on-the-street feel of the rest of the episodes.

It is, however, the vendors that ultimately make this series worth the venture. We often forget that behind the foods of the worlds, there are the people who make them, whose stories are just as rich and important as the foods they make.

I miss mie ayam, I miss sitting on the side of the road next to the gerobak (street food cart) while I stuff my face with the best tasting noodles you’ll find on the planet. Some days it is all I long for. But the next time I do find myself eating mie ayam on the side of the road, I’ll take a moment to appreciate the food, and the vendor whose life is as story-filled as the food they are making.

Street Food is streaming now on Netflix.

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