We all know this story. You don't have cable, but you want to watch that show everyone's been talking about. It's not on the legitimate streaming sites, so you click over to one of those places that lets you watch it by ... other means. So which cable series is on track to be the most pirated show of the year?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the winner so far this year is HBO's Game of Thrones, which has already been downloaded an estimated 25 million times during its second-season run. The season's fifth episode, "The Ghost of Harrenhal," is so far the high point of the piracy, garnering an estimated 2.5 million downloads in one day, according to torrent-tracking firm Big Champagne. And those estimates don't even include the harder-to-track streaming sites providing free access to the show all over the web.
"The fact that it's consistently at the top of the Pirate Bay's top one hundred TV show chart seems like a pretty in-your-face leading indicator of the huge volume at which this is being shared," said John Robinson, a Big Champagne senior media analyst.
Last year it was estimated that the first season of Game of Thrones was the second most pirated show on the web, behind the sixth season of the Showtime series Dexter. The seventh season of that show won't begin airing until later this year, so comparisons can't be made yet, but Game of Thrones is definitely beating last year's Dexter numbers.
So why the jump in piracy for this show? Well, it's got significantly more viewers on cable this year, so it makes sense that more people who aren't cable subscribers would also be interested. But there's more to it than greater hype. Because of its subscription-based business model, HBO continues to keep Game of Thrones unavailable to any legal source but the network itself and its own streaming service HBO GO, which is only available to HBO subscribers.
"This is absolutely a reaction to the show's not being available elsewhere online," Robinson said. "It's a very tricky game trying to create this kind of scarcity."
So what's HBO to do? The show's ratings remain high for a cable series, which suggests the piracy rates will stay high too. Though the network has long resisted the idea that separate Internet availability should be part of its services, Forbes' Erik Kain argues it might be the only way to reduce pirating at this point.
"HBO is missing out on a huge potential audience by limiting themselves to cable TV subscribers," Kain wrote. "I don't blame the company for keeping their shows off of Hulu or Netflix, but offering HBO GO as a stand-alone service could put a serious dent in these piracy numbers, and bring in a lot more legitimate viewers to shows like Game of Thrones."
So even if HBO might be displeased with this rather dubious distinction, at least it proves the show is extremely popular even among people who don't want to pay for premium cable ... right?