"Game of Thrones" has received a lot of attention heading into its second season, but one honor it could probably do without is the very one Forbes magazine wants to crown it: Most-pirated televisions series.
The second season of "Game of Thrones," which is attracting nearly 4 million viewers each week, has already been downloaded illegally 25 million times, according to the magazine. And that's just from the sources where numbers are available. It's episode April 29, "The Ghost of Harrenhal," pulled in 2.5 million downloads -- challenging the actual number of HBO subscribers who tuned in for the broadcast.
The high piracy rate not only reflects the popularity of the show -- especially among the younger audiences who are a little more computer savvy -- but also how difficult HBO makes it to watch the show. Episodes are available only to subscribers to the premium cable channel, although HBO creates multiple platforms of access to the show, including its popular HBO Go that creates an interactive experience with each episode.
But 2.5 million downloads for a single episode can be devastating. If each download were a subscriber, that would cost HBO just under $40 million.
Of course, it's not clear if all 2.5 million downloads would've been subscribers if such illegal means to obtain episodes were not available. However, HBO -- like other premium cable channels -- use original series like "Game of Thrones" to attract subscribers, and if it doesn't attract enough subscribers, they will no longer fund shows like "Game of Thrones."
Forbes contributor Erik Kain, however, says HBO virtually shoots itself in the foot. While trying to promote its own offerings, like HBO Go, the cable channel does not offer episodes through other means, including Apple's iTunes.
"For the millions of Americans who don't subscribe to HBO, or who may not even watch shows on a television, this means there is no legal way to watch 'Game of Thrones,'" Kain said.
That puts HBO in a similar position to what the music industry was in just a decade ago. Piracy was rampant, and the big music distributors at the time ignored solutions that would deliver music digitally. That is, until Apple Inc. created iTunes.
Television networks and movie studios don't want to suffer the same way, and many have already embraced online distribution models, including sites like Hulu and through streaming services like Netflix. Yet, HBO has stayed far away from it, keeping only with its proprietary system. It's not just to keep everything in-house, but it's also because HBO thinks the current online demand for shows will pass in the wind like kings who lay claim to the Iron Throne.
"HBO co-president Eric Kessler has said he thinks the move away from traditional television to an Internet-based model is just a fad that will pass ... a 'temporary phenomenon' tied to the down economy," Kain wrote. "But HBO is missing out on a huge potential audience by limiting themselves to cable TV subscribers. I don't blame the company for keeping their shows off Hulu or Netflix, but offering HBO Go as a stand-along service could put a serious dent in these piracy numbers, and bring a lot more legitimate viewers to shows like 'Game of Thrones.'"
To read Kain's full comments on the issue, check out his full column here.
"Game of Thrones" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
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