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.