HBO hit continues to earn its title of the internet's most pirated show

The dragons have grown bigger, the deaths more frequent, and the downloads more frenzied -- or at least that's the claim anti-piracy group Irdeto is making about the hit fantasy/drama Game of Thrones.

I. Tracking the Greater Piracy Picture

Analyzing file-sharing traffic the group claims that Game of Thrones shattered its own record-setting pace of piracy, with over 116,000 illegal downloads per day worldwide in 2015 (between February and April).  That's more than triple the roughly 36,000 Irdeto claims the show saw in 2014.

Irdeto is a subsidiary of South African media conglomerate Naspers Ltd. (JSE:NPN).  In addition to the piracy research group, it also maintains substantial stakes in Russian email service and Hong Kong internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. (HKG:0700).
Those far reaching global connections may have helped Irdeto perform its compelling -- if controversial -- analysis, which goes to the unusual length of including difficult-to-traffic forms of piracy traffic (notably direct downloads) in its statistics.  Irdeto's data is one of the first and only estimates of the quantity pirated downloads via popular filesharing hubs like Kim Dotcom's Mega, as well as the volume of customers visiting sites that illegally stream feature length content.

In that light the Irdeto report is a bit different from the figures we've seen from TorrentFreak, which tracks only easier-to-track BitTorrent downloads in its annual estimates of the most pirated shows.  In that regard, bear in mind that if these numbers are somewhat higher than TorrentFreak's it's still entirely possible that both are accurate estimates.

Further Irdeto's metrics don't appear to include popular downloaded shows that appear on public television, such as The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Gotham, and Arrow -- shows that occupied spots 3 through 6 in TorrentFreak's 2014 listing of the top 10 most pirated TV shows.

Game of Thrones
For the past three years Game of Thrones has been television's most-pirated TV show.
[Image Source: HBO]

Both TorrentFreak and Irdeto's recent reports agree on a couple of things, notably, however.  Both research teams report that Game of Thrones is far and away the most pirated TV show, with The Walking Dead a bit ahead of the rest of the pack, in second place.  TorrentFreak's annual rankings have reported Game of Thrones as the "most pirate" show for three straight years now (since 2012).  And if Irdeto's numbers are any indication, it will likely make it a fourth straight season on top of the illegal downloads heap.

II. HBO and AMC Content is Coveted By Pirates

Game of Thrones is owned by Time Warner Inc.'s (TWX) HBO (Home Box Office) premium cable channel.  Launched in 1972, HBO is America's oldest active premium cable channel.  It is available to roughly 35.8m American households.  It notably took Netlfix Inc. (NFLX) until the end of 2013 to pass HBO in subscribers.  According to TorrentFreak, its Game of Thrones epic had about 7.16m legitimate subscribers in 2014.   That indicates roughly 1 in 5 Americans who has access to HBO is hooked on Game of Thrones -- an impressive feat.

And as for those Americans who lack legal access to the show, many of them are hooked as well.  According to TorrentFreak, the show saw 8 million illegal downloads via BitTorrent in the 12 months of 2014.  That works out to just under 22,000 downloads a day.  Irdeto's report suggests that roughly 2 out of 3 pirates consume Game of Thrones via BitTorrent downloads, while the others obtain it via other means, such as direct downloads.

Piracy -- top five most downloaded

The Walking Dead is owned by AMC (the "American Movie Classics" channel) is a mid-tier cable channel operated by AMC Networks Inc. (AMCX).  Launched in 1984, AMC largely acted like an early Netflix showing full length films with limited commercial interruption.  But in 2003 it began a major push to reinvent itself as an original programming purveyor.  The effort arguably worked.

Today AMC also owns such hits as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and CSI: Miami.  With 94.8m households comprising its legal viewing audience in the U.S., it has around three times the viewership of HBO.  TorrentFreak suggests roughly 17.3 million U.S. households legally watched The Walking Dead during 2011.  In other words for every 11 U.S. households with AMC access, 2 of them were watching the zombie drama.

AMC -- the Walking Dead
An estimated 17m+ Americans legally watch The Walking Dead. [Image Source: AMC]

While the Game of Thrones numbers appear plausible upon closer inspection, the download figures for the rest of the top five seem a little fishy.  Irdeto claims The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Vikings, and House of Cards saw 5.7m, 3.8m, 3.4m, and 2.7m illegal downloads, respectively, in the same three month period.  Extrapolating, that puts the shows on pace to see annual downloads of 22.8m, 15.2m, 13.6m, and 10.8m downloads, respectively.

(Netflix owns House of Cards, while Vikings is aired on the history channel -- a channel jointly owned by The Walt Disney Comp. (DIS) and the privately-held Hearst Corp.)

House of Cards
House of Cards is reportedly a growing piracy target. [Image Source: Netflix]

To put those numbers in comparison, The Walking Dead and Vikings saw 4.8m and 2.7m downloads via Bittorrent in a 12 month period of 2014, according to Torrent Freak.  The same report implied that Breaking Bad and House of Cards saw less than 2.4m downloads in 12 months.  This implies that the majority of fans are downloading The Walking Dead, etc. by means other than Bittorrent and global piracy has sharply risen since 2014.

AMC's Breaking Bad last topped the torrent list in 2013, when TorrentFreak reported it hitting second place with 4.2m downloads.  While the show ended that same year, two year later it may have recieving a boost from AMC's spinoff series Better Call Saul, which has become a hit in its own right.  House of Cards is a bit of a surprise entrant, but it's well known to be popular.  Netflix went as far as to say in 2013, that the show was the primary factory driving subscriber growth in a tough market.  Further, overseas piracy of the show may be on the rise given the inability to watch the show legally due to Netflix's copyright licensing restrictions in some markets.

III. Pirates Ride the Tidal Wave

The report also looks to clarify these eyebrow raising download numbers somewhat by suggesting that, in fact, the aforementioned spike in global piracy accounted for a higher number of downloads in 2015.  The respect claims that globally illegal video downloads are seeing a "tidal wave of growth.

Irdeto's VP of Services, Rory O'Connor describes:

Piracy is a tidal wave that cannot be controlled, only managed. There is a culture of 'free' where many people believe that it is acceptable to pirate these TV shows if they don’t have access to them through legal means.  If we want to continue to have great TV shows like Game of Thrones, business models need to be protected. That’s why we are passionate about this mission and are investing in technologies and services to help content and rights holders monitor and fight piracy across all distribution formats and release windows.

Examining specifically Game of Thrones filesharing, the researchers claim many nations saw a 50 percent or more uptick in piracy.  India saw the biggest growth with a 155 percent year-on-year rise in piracy rates.  The USA and Canada are in third and fourth place, respectively, in the piracy race, while Brazil and France are number one and two.  Brazil barely missed cracking a million illegal Game of Thrones downloads for the three month stretch.

Amongst the ranks of top piracy regions, Brazil appears to be home to the most prolific pirates.  It was the only country to place in the top three for downloads of all five top shows.  The U.S. by contrast, is in the top three for Game of Thrones piracy, but failed to otherwise make the top three for other shows.  Other prolific pirate homelands in terms of top three rankings by nation of downlaods of the top five shows include include France (4 of the shows), Spain (3), Russia (1), and Italy (1).

Irdeto -- top pirate nations

This would seeming be a troubling development for Hollywood who has traditionally gone to great lengths to harass pirates in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and other enforcement-friendly regions.  But after years of surveys suggesting that pirates actually legally purchase more content, and that illegal downloads often later lead to legal business, some in the content business seem to finally be getting the message that aggressive enforcement is a doomed-to-fail policy.

The mastermind behind HBO's "grand storytelling experiment" -- VP programming chief Michael Lombardo -- in 2012 called the rampant Game of Thrones piracy a complement, even going as far as to say his primary concern was that the pirates might be turned off by a bad copy:

No, we haven’t sent out the Game of Thrones police... I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it is a compliment of sorts.  The demand is there. And it certainly didn’t negatively impact the DVD sales. [Piracy is] something that comes along with having a wildly successful show on a subscription network.

One of my worries is about the copies [downloaders are] seeing.  The production values of this show are so incredible. So I’m hoping that in the purloined different generation of cuts that the show is holding up.

HBO Michael Lombardo
HBO VP and programming director, Michael Lombardo [Image Source: Fast Company]

Intredo's O'Connor nods to this logic stating:

It’s often said that piracy is good marketing, but as piracy continues to skyrocket, the mindset is shifting toward offering a compelling legal alternative like HBO Now to start converting pirates into paying customers.  Our piracy data indicates Game of Thrones continues to be wildly popular in countries like Brazil and France, where a service like HBO Now could be a good way to recapture some revenue.

HBO recently announced a $14.99 USD per month service dubbed "HBO Now", which looks to woo so-called cable-cutters -- households that decline to subscribe to cable TV. The service will initially be offered exclusively via a partnership with Apple, Inc. (AAPL).

HBO Now [Image Source: The Verge]

While HBO's household cable audience is a fairly saturated demographic, it's also working to turn more of them into Game of Thrones watchers, as well.  To that end it's also taken to offering a more limited selection of content via "HBO Go" a separate on-the-go service for smartphone users.  Unlike HBO Now, there's no monthly subscription fees, but the catch is that you have to be a household subscribed to HBO to get access.

IV. Martin's Saga Nears the Finish Line

Game of Thrones piracy should continue strong as Spring rolls along.  The show's season premier kicks off this Sunday, Aug. 12.  The show is currently in its fifth season, under the executive production direction of George R.R. Martin, who writes the book series the show is based on.

Seasons 1 and 2 were straight adaptations, respectively, of the first two books in the best-selling fantasy series.  Starting with Season three and onward, Martin and the producers decided to ditch the one-book-one-season premise, hence the last two seasons have mixed material from multiple books and split some storylines from the books between two seasons.  Filmed in late 2014, Season Five will cover remaining material from A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons.

The ten episode season will wrap up with a season finale in June.  This season marks the first season that hasn't included an episode scripted by Martin.  Martin is racing to try to finish the sixth of seven planned books in his fantasy series, The Winds of Winter.

George RR Martin
George RR Martin hopes to keep the show's popularity going tentatively targeting next year for the release of his next book. [Image Source: WireImage] 

Martin -- who writes his manuscripts on an ancient MS-DOS machine (which he claims is the pinnacle of computing) -- has a reputation among his fans for disappointing with later than expected novel releases.  However, he appears to be locked in for a release for early 2016 of the new novel.  This will be followed by next Spring's sixth season of the HBO series, which should cover part or all of the sixth book.

Where things get a bit sketchy is 2017.  HBO has plans to do seven or eight season of Game of Thrones.  But the show will officially run out of book material once it finishes the sixth book.  Martin has already made it clear to expect the book to diverge modestly from the TV show, given their timeframes.  He's given the producers key outlines of what happens to characters such that they could potentiall wrap up the TV series before the book series concludes.

The book series -- A Song of Fire and Ice -- is the best selling fantasy series in many decades, moving over 24 million units.  Many compare it to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy in impact.  The final book of the series, tentatively titled A Dream of Spring is planned as a conclusion to Martin's magnus opus, although there's some concern that he might die before finishing the epic fantasy saga given his age (66).  Given his past publication rate, it seems probable that he'll release the last book around 2020, around the time when Martin celebrates his 71st birthday.

And if all goes according to plan Game of Thrones will be have been the most-pirated series for nearly a decade when it wraps up.  Fans and pirates can check out Martin's blog on Livejournal -- ironically titled Not a Blog.  And no, the blog isn't written in MS-DOS -- Martin does occasionally jump onto a newer machine to blog and interact with fans.

Source: Irdeto [press release]

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