The second season of Game of Thrones is on track to be 2012's most pirated television show with more than 25 million downloads for the first six episodes since the series' debut on April 1. The show hit its highpoint after episode 5, "The Ghosts of Harrenhal," was downloaded more than 2.5 million times in a single day, according to Forbes citing numbers from media monitoring firm Big Champagne.
It's not clear if you can legitimately count each download as a single viewer, but consider this: the season finale for Game of Thrones Season One had just 3 million viewers, according to Entertainment Weekly. So in a single day, a mid-season episode from season two gained almost as much attention from pirates, as the show's first season finale did from paying subscribers.
This is just the latest sign of the ever widening gap between the desire of content producers to protect their content with digital rights management (DRM) and the desire of audiences to consume content on their terms and for free. This has prompted a seemingly never ending battle between pirates and Hollywood. Recent skirmishes include the addition of more unskippable piracy warnings on DVD and Blu-ray discs, while some Internet service providers block their customers from accessing torrent-related sites – namely ThePirateBay. There are even reports that a new service called Pirate Pay wants to resurrect the idea of using technical means to disrupt and shut down popular BitTorrent swarms, according to Torrent Freak.
Stop the Madness
It's no surprise that popular shows from specialty channels such as HBO and Showtime consistently top piracy charts. Showtime's Dexter Season Six and Game of Thrones Season One, for example, were the two most-pirated shows of 2011, Torrent Freak said in a separate report.
Not only do you need a cable television subscription to view these shows when they debut, but high-profile series from HBO and Showtime rarely see digital distribution soon after their initial broadcasts. Some HBO subscribers can use the HBO Go service to view their favorite shows online, but non-subscribers are left out in the cold waiting for shows to land on Amazon on Demand, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, or DVD and Blu-ray.
That leaves two choices: wait for the disc and digital release (more than seven months later, Dexter fans are still waiting for season six or choose piracy. Millions of people, it seems, are choosing the latter.
Competing With Free
So the solution is clear, right? Soon after their broadcast debuts release shows like Game of Thrones on Amazon and iTunes and all those pirates will disappear with the wildlings behind the Wall. Well, not necessarily.
AMC sells the latest season of Mad Men on iTunes allowing you to download episodes the day after initial broadcast. And yet, Sunday's episode of Mad Men still made the Pirate Bay's top 200 torrents list on Monday morning.
Chalk it up to impatience, a distaste for pre-roll video ads, the need to have DRM-free material, or international audiences that can't access the content any other way, but it's clear digital availability doesn't kill piracy. Even the recent trend of comedians such as Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K. and Jim Gaffigan releasing DRM-free comedy specials for the rock-bottom price of $5 hasn't stopped all pirating of their content.
The alternative, however, is for content creators to lock down their content, wage war against viewers, and cling to still lucrative but antiquated contracts with national cable providers.
It may not be time yet for content creators to embrace the future and go digital, but have no doubt: broadcast television's summertime youth is over and winter is coming.