Game of Thrones creators say piracy doesn't harm profits

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Let's just get this out of the way: This story is no April Fool’s prank no matter how far-fetched the headline seems at first glance. Despite an official network policy that is strictly anti-bootleg, an HBO exec says that rampant piracy isn’t really hurting the mega-popular Game of Thrones when it comes to DVD sales.

“I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but [piracy] is a compliment of sorts,” HBO programming Michael Lombardo recently told Entertainment Weekly. “The demand is there. And [piracy] certainly didn’t negatively impact the DVD sales [of Game of Thrones].” The medieval-styled political intrigue/fantasy series is HBO’s top money earner in terms of international and DVD sales, Entertainment Weekly reports.

Piracy, Lombardo told EW, simply comes with the territory of having a wildly popular show on a subscription-based network like HBO.

The show's popularity with pirates isn't slowing, either. Game of Thrones is back on top of the piracy charts with Season 3 episode 1, which made its debut Sunday night. The show is currently the most popular torrent on The Pirate Bay, with six different torrent files for the episode making the site’s top 100 chart. Game of Thrones was the most pirated TV show for 2012 with more than 4 million downloads per episode.

Lombardo’s comments echo those of Game of Thrones director David Petrarca, who said in February that piracy had little negative impact on HBO’s top show, according to Australian daily The Sidney Morning Herald. Game of Thrones and similar shows, Petrarca said, thrive on “cultural buzz” generated by a large audience.

Grappling with digital reality

Lombardo and Petrarca may not be too worried about piracy, but HBO is taking steps to grapple with the issue, especially overseas where piracy is rampant. The network recently said it will allow its international broadcast partners to show new episodes of Game of Thrones sooner than usual.

Typically, international markets must wait a week or more to begin broadcasting new seasons of popular U.S. shows. With Game of Thrones, however, international viewers must wait only a week after the U.S. premiere (Sunday night) to see episode 1. The rest of the show’s episodes can be broadcast within 24 hours of their U.S. air date. That means some international markets could show the first episode of the Game of Thrones' third season this coming Sunday, and then air episode 2 the following Monday.

But a faster release schedule won’t help American Game of Thrones fans who don’t have an HBO subscription, and there doesn’t appear to be any immediate relief for cord cutters in sight. Rumors are circulating, however, that HBO might decouple its HBO Go streaming service from the cable providers. That means you would pay HBO directly for online access to its content. Currently, the HBO Go service requires customers to have an account with a major cable provider such as AT&T or Comcast.

Major movie and television content producers are currently struggling with piracy similar to problems the music industry faced several years ago. The entertainment industry is caught between experimenting with policing systems—such as the recently instituted Copyright Alert System—and coming up with new business models to deal with the realities of the Internet.

While streaming video may be gaining traction with consumers, not much has changed in terms of new content methods and delivery services for premium online video content. A direct-to-consumer HBO Go service could be one of the first major experiments with new online delivery methods in years—but by introducing just such a plan, HBO would risk upsetting its cable partners and the juicy distribution contracts that currently tie HBO’s fate to the cable providers.

With piracy bearing little influence on the bottom line of top shows like Game of Thrones, HBO might not be willing to bite that particular hand just yet.

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