Unless you've been living under Casterly Rock for a few weeks, you will've been bombarded with all sorts of Game of Thrones chatter. As one of the biggest television shows of all time, it's no surprise that for most of us, Monday mornings to Sunday evenings are dominated by talking all things Westeros. But one of the hottest talking points recently hasn't been the latest fan theory or speculation. No, most are discussing pesky cybercriminals and leaked episodes.
HBO — the cable network owned by Time Warner — has been targeted recently, with #GameofThrones the number one bargaining chip for hackers who are demanding a ransom of millions of dollars in exchange for withholding digitally-stored and unreleased episodes from hordes of online pirates. As if that wasn't bad enough, Star India employees leaked the fourth episode of this season, while HBO Europe accidentally uploaded the sixth episode to their official streaming site. Oops.
As well as gaining access to the Game of Thrones Facebook and Twitter, a hacker's group known as "Mr Smith group" are threatening to illegally release the highly-anticipated finale online, having gained access to 1.5 Terrabytes of information from HBO's server. It's safe to say these have been stressful times for the network, but what impact do such leaks have? Do they result in reduced viewing figures? And, more importantly, do they cost HBO cold, hard cash?
The Link Between Piracy And Viewing Figures
In terms of negatively affecting viewing figures, the answer is a resounding no. In fact, despite 'Spoils of War' being leaked three days before the official airing, it became the most watched episode of the season at the time, with 10.72 million viewers tuning in on the night, and 30 million watching across all platforms. The story is the same for last week's leaked episode, 'Beyond the Wall,' which was watched by an impressive audience of 10.24 million.
In fact, those within the industry have been bullish on the effects of piracy, with some claiming it could even have a positive effect. In 2013, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes claimed, half-jokingly, that the volume of people watching the show illegally online was "better than an Emmy" for building buzz, the hope being a significant portion of those pirates will switch to an official subscription as their fandom takes hold. Bewkes comments prove that piracy isn't a new challenge for networks; even without a prior leak, HD copies of episodes appear online within hours of airing.
Once available, the masses eagerly queue to get their entertainment fix. The Game of Thrones Season 7 premiere was pirated an outstanding 91.74 million times around the world, across a mix of illegal streams, torrents and direct downloads. The show has also been the most pirated for a number of years running, beating the likes of Westworld and The Walking Dead in 2016. Andy Chatterley, cofounder of MUSO, a piracy monitoring firm, also views these huge numbers as a potential benefit for the network:
"Audience figures have always been a critical measure for studios and TV execs to assess the health of shows. The fact that there's been over 90 million streams and downloads of the Game of Thrones season seven premiere outside of the official channels in the first three days since airing, not only shows just how popular this show is, but the massive opportunity to engage people and bring them back to legitimate mediums."
As one of the most esteemed networks in the world, HBO clearly are making the most of this opportunity, with close to 131 million subscribers worldwide making them billions in revenue. Those funds help offset the high production cost in bringing the Game of Thrones fantasy to life; a single Season 7 episode can cost the network up to $10 million, with an average total of $70 million to $80 million for one season — that's a decent-sized budget for a Hollywood film, without a money-making theatrical release.
The Treasure Trove Of Merchandise
For a show as revered as Game of Thrones, though, there's another way to attract some serious income. Merchandise opens a whole new revenue stream, not only to paid subscribers, but to those who pirate the show too. After all, you can't illegally torrent a t-shirt or a mug with "I <3 House Stark" written on it, can you? Although HBO don't release information on merchandise profits, the sales of DVD and Blu-ray boxsets gives an indication of how lucrative the fanbase is. This year, Game of Thrones Season 6 sold 117,410 DVDs and 65,060 Blu-rays, making $4 million and $2.6 million respectively.
Look at 2016, and the returns are even greater. Released in November that year, the sixth season box set was sold 370,199 times on Blu-ray, making $14.4 million. That was eclipsed by the fifth season, which shifted 538,143 Blu-rays and 471,493 DVDs, for a combined total of $36.9 million from home media alone. Due to the show's high production and rewatch value, it's safe to say a percentage of those buyers would've initially pirated the show before later investing.
Essentially, the HBO leaks don't really harm the network, at least not financially, thanks to resilient income streams in subscriptions and merchandise. In modern times, audience habits are complex and ever-changing. Many choose not to stream illegally, but those that do may follow up by rewatching, subscribing to the network or buying merchandise and home media. To this end, statistics on illegal viewerships could become a vital part of measuring the success of a show.
As for HBO, Game of Thrones is a formidable beast, and despite their best attempts, hackers lack the cyber-Valyrian steel required to injure it.
Have you invested in Game of Thrones merchandise? If so, what did you buy?