Yesterday, as with so many other people, I marvelled at how Game of Thrones’ return didn’t just meet expectations, but actually surpassed them. As expected the "illegal download" rates were enormous but so too were the official viewing figures. For me, though, something else was new… it was the first time I’d watched it on official broadcast TV.
Back in 2011, the most-read article on the whole of ABC Online, was "The Case for Piracy" which discussed all the reasons why people ‘pirated’ copyrighted content and how the content industry was partly to blame. Evidently it struck a chord with the internet world.
But in some areas the content industry seems to be catching on. For a long time, many have said that having high numbers of "illegal downloads" equates to strong sales and now there are some compelling figures to back those claims up.
It raises the question, would some content creators be better off not spending their time and money suing (and threatening to sue) everyone, and lobbying governments to pass controversial laws, and instead foster an environment where content went free and viral to some degree? Let’s look at some of the key evidence and see whether piracy should be redefined as some sort of viral marketing campaign.
Monty Python was one of the first high profile media groups to change attitudes. Back in 2008, the team gave up suing the people that were putting their content on YouTube and made their own YouTube Channel (which offered high-quality versions of the same content). The result? Sales went up 23,000%. That’s not a typo. Twenty Three Thousand per cent.
Peppa Pig is one of the most successful kids’ franchises ever. It (she?) even has its own theme park in the UK. Book sales and merchandise sales are through the roof all over the world. In Australia, it’s hit double the viewing figures of any other program on the ABC’s iview.
Yet Peppa’s lawyers seem a lax bunch. It’s not just that people are posting whole episodes on YouTube and scoring millions of views from them, entire series are being posted which have every episode running back to back.
As the parent of a toddler, I can guiltily say that this comes in very handy from time to time. But it’s not like we’re not paying Peppa Corp along the way. At Christmas and Birthday time the, "What would she like for a present?" question is routinely answered with, "Peppa." The same has been true of her cousin for the past two years. When she recently walked down the Peppa isle in Toys R’ Us, her expression was one that will be treasured forever. Heck, one of her first words was Peppa.
Viewing is split on iPads running YouTube and recorded ABC broadcasts via Foxtel’s cable. So while I am paying for some of it, technically much is coming for free and could be considered copyright infringing.
But just look at the benefits. Peppa HQ is getting customers for life – my daughter’s kids will probably have Peppa merchandise pushed to them and the "free," "copyright infringed," "viral" content has acted like one of the most successful, cheapest and best-value marketing campaigns ever.
The music industry
It harks us back to the old claim that the most ardent illegal downloaders of music were the highest spenders on music. Was that really true? Evidence from Japan might be informative. In 2012, once harsh penalties appeared for "illegally downloading" music, actual music sales went down.
While Japan’s record industry was operating in a slightly different way to other countries there is still an element of common sense here. You gain fans by making your content widely available and cool and then profit from the fan base in other ways: concerts and sales that would not otherwise have been made. Still, you can see why the old industry leaders are abhorred by such a notion. Many still believe that the CD sales boom of the 90s would still be going up if it wasn’t for Napster.
For the, erm, record, I haven’t used a CD or a DVD for many years – they don’t fit in smartphones, other mobile devices or media streamers attached to the TV. I don’t actually have anything to play them on. A while back I bought Led Zeppelin’s Celebration Day CD and Blu-Ray collection. It took me a while to work out how to play any of it. The first thing that happened to the CD was that it got ripped to MP3.
But enough of that old argument. What are we learning from Game of Thrones?
Game of Thrones
It’s one of the most pirated series of all time and Australia leads the way. But, is that now a good thing for its makers, HBO?
It might be surprising to hear that despite all the "rampant piracy" stories, yesterday’s episode was "HBO’s most-watched hour of TV since The Sopranos went off the air with a black screen in 2007." The 6.6 million viewers was up by 2.2 million from last year’s first episode of season three. It also made the HBO Go web-streaming service crash (more on that here).
And HBO officials are all too aware of the issue. The show’s director acknowledged that the piracy created a "cultural buzz." Higher up the corporate chain, the CEO of Time Warner (the parent company of HBO) has said that piracy is a compliment, that it doesn’t hurt sales and is more valuable than an Emmy!
People who couldn’t get (or afford) Game of Thrones via HBO cable services set up a campaign – Take My Money HBO – but HBO declined.
Partners like Foxtel in Australia and Sky in the UK likely won’t thank HBO for such comments but they’ll certainly thank it for not streaming HBO Go internationally.
Nonetheless, it would be an interesting test case for HBO to stream direct to Australia – cutting out Foxtel – to see what happens. Would HBO make more money from cheaper subscription downloads than it would from a fat Foxtel contract? We’re unlikely to find out anytime soon – the current business model evidently works very well so why undercut it and annoy your business partners? For now.
A personal story
From my end, I’ve finally started paying Foxtel for it. I make no apology for this. I subscribed to most Foxtel channels for years but I didn’t want to pay extra money for the movie channels. Then, all of a sudden, the popular US TV shows got bundled in with the movies so you had to pay extra for the movies just to watch the TV series that you had already paid for – a real shyster thing to do. I refused on principal.
However, I eventually was worn down. Getting Foxtel’s kids package, and documentary package (which I’d been annoyed with not having for a long time) and boosting those with the movie package – so that I now subscribed to everything – actually came in at a minimal premium. As such, while Game of Thrones is not solely responsible for getting me to pay more to Foxtel each month, it is partly responsible and that does rather validate Foxtel’s entire business plan and also HBO’s. I also now have Orange is the new Black, House of Cards, Dexter and The Newsroom on tap too.
To me there’s value there but I can see why students, and those with less money plus those with no access to Foxtel even if they wanted it (and could afford it) wouldn’t pay. If you just wanted to watch the one show, it’s over $500 to install and subscribe to the relevant channels. That’s utterly ridiculous for many people. And the likes of HBO, Sky and Foxtel can hardly keep mentioning the water cooler effect of series like Game of Thrones without acknowledging that people who don’t subscribe are going to feel left out and look for alternative methods to get the show.
Sure there are some other ways appearing – Game of Thrones became available on Playstation 3 last week on a reduced cost subscription package. But these outlests still have minimal audiences and require the kerfuffle of sorting out subscriptions to other things that you don’t actually want.
You feel that one day this will all change, and we’ll know when it’s happening when the kings of the content trees, like HBO, realise that there’s more money to be made from online streaming than traditional international licensing deals and cable subscriptions. Don’t hold your breath.
Chicken and Egg
But really, the big questions are these:- are monster shows like Game of Thrones made more successful by widespread piracy? Does the piracy cause them to be as successful as they are? Or does piracy hold successful shows back from being as successful as they could be?
With Game of Thrones’ massive viewership success with its cable audience in the US last night, and its famous amount of piracy, one wonders if the last question can possibly be true. If you wiped out all of the piracy would those official viewing numbers really be higher? It’s highly unlikely.
On the other hand, if piracy were to become officially recognised and legal, would anyone bother paying for anything ever again?
But then we are talking about Game of Thrones here. Not all media can afford to look at massive piracy as some kind of asset – writers, for example, tend to get apoplectic at the very thought of any copyright infringement. And this brings us back to Peppa Pig and Monty Python. How big does a media franchise have to be to benefit from piracy? Would all media franchises and series really do well to generate as much "piracy" as possible in order to succeed better in real financial terms?
Meanwhile, should HBO, Sky or Foxtel tip the apple cart from where it’s balanced right now?