HBO's Game of Thrones broadcast strategy aimed at thwarting piracy

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With the third season of the hit series Game of Thrones set to debut at the end of March, HBO hopes winter is coming not just to the land of Westeros, but also to digital piracy. In an apparent effort to reduce illicit downloads overseas, HBO plans to release new episodes of Game of Thrones Season 3 (or GOT S03 in pirate-speak) to worldwide audiences faster than usual.

As initially reported by Forbes, the new season of Game of Thrones will begin to air in 176 markets around the globe within a week of the U.S. premiere. A source within HBO who asked not to be identified confirmed the scheduling to TechHive.

International audiences often have to wait weeks or months for their favorite HBO shows to be broadcast by their local cable providers. That’s why HBO’s accelerated release rate isn’t just for Game of Thrones, our source said, but for all of HBO’s original programming.

HBO’s accelerated international schedule comes after the second season of Game of Thrones earned the dubious honor of being the most pirated TV show in 2012. The medieval drama set in an imaginary world saw more than 3 million pirated downloads per episode in 2012, according to TorrentFreak. The premiere season was also one of the most pirated shows for 2011, TorrentFreak said, coming in second to the sixth season of Showtime’s Dexter.

International audiences are a good place to start if HBO wants Game of Thrones to stay off the piracy charts in 2013. TorrentFreak reported in December that 80 percent of TV show pirates are outside of the United States, and our source confirmed that piracy for Game of Thrones is a bigger problem overseas than within the U.S. But piracy isn’t the only issue prompting the new release window, this person said; technology is also making it easier to transmit content around the world faster than in the days when everything shipped on physical media.

Show scheduling

Season three of Game of Thrones debuts at the end of March in the U.S.; it will air in other countries a week later, HBO says.

It’s not clear how the Game of Thrones accelerated schedule would work, and our source was unable to confirm this by the time we published this article. But speaking from personal experience, HBO’s plan may reflect something similar to what happened overseas with AMC’s Mad Men in 2012. The critically acclaimed 1950-60s era drama aired in some overseas markets (including mine) soon after its initial air date in the U.S. Mad Men aired in the UK three days after its US premiere, according to Den of Geek.

Airing most of Game of Thrones within 24 hours would make far more sense for international audiences rather than waiting a week for each successive episode. Why wait seven days after all, when you can just download it in a few minutes and watch it right away for free? But when the download window closes to just one day or a few days, the lure of piracy may not be as attractive.

Pirates hoping to watch Game of Thrones still have to wait for a new episode to pop-up on The Pirate Bay or another BitTorrent tracking site. Since Game of Thrones airs on Sunday night in the U.S., international downloaders could be waiting until Monday morning or afternoon to get the show, depending on their time zone. Since you’ve downloaded the new episode on a work day, you may not have time to watch it before your local cable provider airs it that night. Under those circumstances, waiting for the broadcast or recording it on your DVR makes more sense. But that’s purely speculation—it’s not clear if this is the schedule HBO’s international partners will follow with Game of Thrones and other HBO shows.

American pirates

The DVD for season two of Game of Thrones only recently became available for purchase, even though the last episode aired in summer 2012.

Even if Game of Thrones is more accessible overseas, there’s still the matter of U.S. piracy. There may be fewer American pirates for Game of Thrones, but the problem still exists especially for cord cutters who aren’t interested in paying hefty cable bills every month just to get HBO. Part of the problem for HBO is that its business model includes big contracts with the cable providers. Those agreements make it far less attractive for HBO to offer a standalone HBO Go subscription online, Making matters worse, the entertainment channel is famously slow when it comes to online and DVD releases of its programming. Game of Thrones Season 2, for example, only came out on DVD and Blu-ray in February following the season finale’s final air date the previous June.

There are numerous stories of American Game of Thrones fans who claim HBO forced them into piracy by making its content difficult to obtain outside of an HBO subscription. Online comic strip The Oatmeal famously detailed how one person trying to watch Game of Thrones via legal channels was unable to find the show on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, or Hulu. He eventually gave up and opted for piracy.

HBO’s international plan may be good news for international audiences, but Americans who don’t want to shell out for cable are stuck choosing between a long wait for DVDs or the immediate-if-illicit satisfaction of piracy.

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