Who is responsible for 'Game of Thrones' piracy?

Some critics have blamed Australian pay TV service Foxtel's "outdated" business model for record breaking downloads of HBO's wildly popular show, but is the criticism warranted?

game-of-thrones-foxtel.jpg
HBO

Last week, the season four finale of "Game of Thrones" broke all existing torrent records to become the most pirated show ever. And, of course, all the records it broke were previously set by "Game of Thrones" episodes. To put it conservatively, it's a popular show.

Australians have been prolific when it comes to torrenting "Game of Thrones" -- although we're pretty good when it comes to piracy in general. Last year we even had the US ambassador make an impassioned plea for us to stop "stealing" the show.

There's been a lot of debate about why Aussies aren't buying "Game of Thrones" legally, but for the latest season some people have put the blame on Australian pay TV service Foxtel.

That's because Foxtel had the exclusive rights to broadcast season four in Australia -- it wasn't available from any other source until the final episode had been aired on Foxtel. Previously, both iTunes and local video-on-demand service Quickflix had the individual episodes -- in fact, Quickflix was promising them "within hours" of the US air time for season three.

Parenthetically, that time difference is very important. For a show like "Game of Thrones", even an hour of US citizens' unfettered access to social media can create a maelstrom of spoilers -- a spoilnado, if you will -- that can ruin an episode before it's even been watched.

Tangled cables

So if Aussies wanted to watch season four, they had to do it on pay TV -- but why is that a problem? The Australian market is significantly different to the US when it comes to cable. Foxtel is this country's biggest pay TV provider and it's only in around 30 percent of Australian homes. In fact, Foxtel is aiming for a 50 percent penetration rate by 2017.

By contrast, by the end of 2012, the US had 100.2 million households with pay TV, which at the time was 86 percent of the market.

The fact is that cable Internet has never made much of a mark in Australia. As recently as June 2013 only 9.3 percent of people got their Internet from "cable, fibre, satellite or other," according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. (That's down from its hey-day of 12.3 percent in December 2007.)

That means there's never been much of an infrastructure for pay TV to use, and that's why Foxtel has been offering Foxtel Play, an IPTV service, for some time now, with apps for gaming consoles, smart TV and more.

If you do want a traditional pay TV box, that normally involves a technician having to run cable specifically into your house and that, of course, can generate additional fees. The majority of Aussie houses won't have the cable ready to roll.

Costs

Foxtel offered some special deals around "Game of Thrones" season four in order to tempt new customers.

For Foxtel Play -- which is a modular subscription model letting users create their channel list out of blocks -- Foxtel dropped this price of the block that had Showcase, the channel that showed "Game of Thrones", to AU$10 for the three months that the season aired over.

With the AU$25 fee for a single genre pick, you could have "Game of Thrones" on IPTV for AU$35 a month. The whole season, therefore, would cost about AU$105 -- about $99 -- to watch via Play.

For people already on the set-top box version of Foxtel, the company offered a similar deal -- ten bucks for the Showcase channel.

In the US there is of course basic cable and premium cable, of which HBO is the latter. In general, basic will set you back around $15 to $20 a month and premium gets added on top. In HBO's case, that can run from $16.99 to $19.99 depending on who your cable provider is.

So, the back-of-the-envelope pricing says that, at a rough minimum, Americans would pay about $32 a month -- that's about AU$34 -- and Aussies can get it via IPTV for US$33 a month.

Apples and oranges

The pricing, clearly, doesn't tell the whole story -- we're still comparing a show delivered over cable to a streaming service offering Standard Definition quality. But for the purposes of this article, let's agree that the pricing isn't utterly disparate.

What really has Australians up in arms is that last season, as we said before, was on two different video-on-demand services, available very soon after it aired in the US and would have cost you around AU$35 for the entire season. In HD.

When you look at it that way, AU$105 for the run of the season does seem like a lot. And yes, Foxtel's exclusive rights for the run of the season can be seen, as Australian consumer watchdog Choice termed it, as "an outdated business model".

In fact, Australian ISP iiNet has criticised the entire "content industry" for being uncompetitive and not willing to look at new distribution models for Australia.

But what sometimes gets lost in the debate is that Foxtel's model echoes HBO's own -- in the US if you want to watch "Game of Thrones", you have to subscribe to HBO. There's never been an iTunes or similar option.

Still broken?

But just because Foxtel isn't doing anything HBO doesn't do doesn't mean it's not a problem. (It's also a little confusing when you realise that HBO has an 8 percent stake in Quickflix, but that's a different matter...)

I do think that content owners and distributors are clinging to outdated models. I'm a big proponent that people should be able to easily pay to watch what they want, when they want, on what they want. The technology is here, but the industry needs to catch up -- especially when it comes to licensing rights.

But does that mean that Foxtel is directly responsible for the rampant piracy of "Game of Thrones" in Australia? That seems like a rather long bow to draw. Would we even be having this conversation if it was a different show? I think not -- there's just something about "Game of Thrones'" combination of action and politics that gets people's dander up about the show and its availability.

Or perhaps, deep down, we know that George RR Martin is never going to finish the series, and that the TV show is the only way we'll ever get closure.

 

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