Hacks and leaks can't slay Game of Thrones' audience: Life in a binge-watch world

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Sep 3, 2019, 7:29 AM EDT (Updated)

HBO's Game of Thrones episode "The Spoils of War" was a genuine knockout, what with the Stark sister reunion and Daenerys letting slip the dragons of war.

However, HBO recently suffered a one-two punch: First, its servers were breached, and hackers absconded with 1.5 terabytes of data, including upcoming scripts of its must-watch series. Second, HBO affiliate station Star India leaked "The Spoils of War," where potentially millions of people could view it before its official air date. HBO should be clutching its hardware in agony, the same way fans clutch themselves during one of the show's many sudden deaths.

But the premium channel isn't actually down for the count. "The Spoils of War" has been the most successful episode Game of Thrones has had to date. There were 10.2 million same-day viewers tuned in to watch the Stark sisters' loving reunion (and Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy's awkward one).

An episode watched in advance that has earned record ratings? The word you may be grasping for is "counterintuitive."

It turns out there may be a correlation. Senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore says, "True fans want to experience the show the way they normally see it. You wait until Sunday night, and it's an event," says Dergarabedian. This suggests that people who had watched the pirated version also saw it again during its official air time.

Hacking into HBO's private files, as well as leaking an advanced episode, are two separate crimes. According to Meredith Rose, policy counsel at digital rights public interest group Public Knowledge, hacking runs afoul of the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, while the leak was a copyright violation. "The copyright owner has the right to distribution and display, so as soon as an episode gets leaked, as we lawyers say, that's a problem."

Despite breaking the law, Dergarabedian says, "In a strange way, it is a compliment, because it indicates that people literally cannot wait for the next episode to find out what's going on." These two crimes speak to the success of the show, whose ratings are on the rise, even in the seventh season.

But these acts also speak to our change in culture. This is because, as Dergarabedian puts it, "We live in a binge-watch world."

"We have very little patience for waiting for the next episode, we have very little patience for sitting through commercials. This takes it to the next level, where audiences can't wait a week. We live in a time when movies and TV shows are available on demand on more platforms and more devices than ever before. [The hack and leak are] a by-product of this ubiquity and availability," Dergarabedian says.

Which means we'll likely see these kind of leaks again. As Rose says, "I wouldn’t be shocked if there is something culture tied to our availability of binge-watching that amplifies [leaking and hacking]."

But we've also seen piracy before, as in the case of SYFY's Battlestar Galactica. In a paper for journal Popular Communication, "Fandom in the Digital Era," Roberta Pearson writes, 

On October 14, 2004, the UK channel Sky One (part of News Corps' BSkyB satellite service) showed BSG's premiere episode, "33," several weeks ahead of its scheduled US debut on January 14. British fans quickly uploaded the episode to the peer-to-peer file server BitTorrent and would-be US fans just as quickly downloaded it.

Pearson quotes media analyst Mark Pesce, who in 2005 wrote, "[Battlestar Galactica] is so good that the few tens of thousands of people who watched downloaded versions told their friends to tune in on January 14 and see for themselves … Piracy made it possible for 'word-of-mouth' to spread about Battlestar Galactica."

Although sharing an episode in advance has proven effective in some cases, harm is still being done. The producers of a show or film don't receive profit when consumers don't pay for content, and these producers have less incentive to continue creating. Because of this, hacking and leaking harm both industry and consumers. (Also, hacking is a crime with stiff penalties, including imprisonment.)

The current approach of dropping entire seasons and miniseries at once has changed audience expectations — perhaps giving viewers a sense of entitlement. But it also discourages illegal file sharing, as everyone has access to all episodes at once.

A potential cure for these hacking and leaking woes is for HBO to release all of Game of Thrones Season 8 at once. It's a change in how HBO releases content ... but if there's anything Game of Thrones fans know intimately, it's sudden change.