Game of groans: how online hackers are spoiling TV
After the new episode of Game of Thrones was leaked, fans fear hearing about plot twists before seeing the series. It's a growing problem
Winter has arrived early for Game of Thrones fans with the latest episode of the hit fantasy romp leaking online days before it is scheduled to be broadcast.
This presents the show's millions of loyal fans with a painful choice. Do they do the 'right thing' and decline to watch the pirated instalment? Or should they go with the crowd and feast upon an hour of television many are already raving about as the best in the series yet?
The situation is complicated by the fact that spoilers for the latest dispatch began to ping around the internet hours after the leak. GoT junkies venturing anywhere near Facebook and Twitter did so in the knowledge they were liable to stumble upon bombshells that would potentially ruin their enjoyment of the saga, due to air on Monday night on Sky Atlantic.
It's a dilemma with which television viewers are now wrestling on an ongoing basis. Granted, no other series captures the public imagination in quite the fashion of Game of Thrones - estimated to have a weekly global audience in excess of 90 million (of which 80 million are 'tuning in' via illegal downloads).
Nonetheless, leaks are now a fact of life in TV. Last month, hackers staged a smash and grab raid on the servers of GoT producer HBO and, if they do not appear to have secured access to Thrones itself, they succeeded in putting out unaired episodes of comedies Ballers and Curb Your Enthusiasm (ironically the latest GoT leak came from HBO itself, with the new episode accidentally aired in the middle of the night on its Spanish service).
This is a similar headache to that which plagued the music industry a decade ago. Recall the fuss when uncompleted fragments of a forthcoming U2 album were posted online in 2009? In that moment it seemed to many in the record business that the world had ended - although, just six years later, U2 would be giving away their latest record for free and suffering a backlash for their troubles.
What complicates the situation for TV viewers is the aforementioned question of spoilers. We all have a good idea what a U2 album is going to sound like ahead of the event. But if your Facebook timeline is going to be crowded with GoT plot twists days before the episode go out, should you just put yourself out of your misery and watch the show?
"I don't condemn those who do rush out to get the latest episode, but people should keep it to themselves and not take away the enjoyment from those of us with a little more patience," says Declan Doody, editor of geek website the-arcade.ie. "Watch a leaked episode by all means, just have the common sense not to post a raving rant or a meme packed full of spoilers. There's a special place in geek hell for people who post spoilers."
Tellingly, the leaks have had little impact on Game of Thrones ratings. When episode four of the present season was accidentally put out by Indian broadcasters a fortnight ago, viewership actually jumped to an all-time record. And when the first four hours of season five leaked in 2015, one GoT actor went so far as to suggest this was a deliberate tactic by HBO to build hype for the show.
"The more secretive it is, the more special it is," said Alexander Siddig, who portrayed shortlived Prince Doran of Dorne (and is better known from Star Trek spin-off Deep Space Nine).
"And certainly Game of Thrones plays that. They misinform the crowd and give them tidbits to send them in wrong directions. So, for example, last season, I believe the first few episodes were stolen and downloaded online, and everybody got to see them before the show actually aired, and everybody was furious at HBO and whatnot. I don't know if you remember. I am almost positive those four episodes were leaked by HBO themselves. So there is an enormous amount of spin going on."
To some, the issue is purely one of ethics. Illegal downloading is theft - and theft is wrong. Not everyone agrees however - with defenders of internet file sharing contending that helping yourself to the latest Game of Throne is fundamentally different from stealing a car. In the latter case, your gain is at the direct expense of someone else.
With piracy, they argue, the picture is more muddled. Is it okay for a customer of Sky Atlantic, for instance, to download Game of Thrones illegally, as they are already paying for access to the show via their subscription?
What about a penniless student who can't afford Sky. Can they truly be said to be robbing Sky Atlantic and HBO of revenue that would never accrue in the first place? Game of Thrones' producers have been relaxed towards piracy and indeed seem to regard the show's status as the most downloaded in the world as a badge of honour.
"It's a difficult question because obviously you're working very hard to do something that costs lots of money to do," said DB Weiss, one of the series' two show-runners. "And if it doesn't make the money back, then it ceases to exist. On the other hand, the fact so many people want it so badly that they can't wait to get their hands on it… it's a mixed feeling. Ambivalence."
One theory, put forward by GoT's other show-runner David Benioff, was that people who pirate Game of Thrones may, at a later date, stump up for a HBO subscription or purchase a Game of Thrones box set - meaning that the network will eventually receive its due.
"We just shot in Spain and apparently the show is more popular in Spain than anywhere else in the world, and I think that's directly because of piracy," he told the Oxford Union in 2015.
"We were meeting all these people who had watched the show, but it hadn't actually aired there and so of course they were all watching it illegally on the internet. And the show became more and more popular and now people are watching it legally and people are buying the DVDs, so I think, eventually, HBO gets their money.
However, this laissez faire stance appears to have changed lately. Four people were arrested in the aftermath of the Indian leak. And when the show returned in July, the network was keeping a close watch on illicit torrent sites, dispatching thousands of warning letters to individuals hosting illegal downloading.
Winter may be coming - but so too, it seems, are HBO lawyers.