Popular (I think) online comic website The Oatmeal recently uploaded an entry titled “I tried to watch Game of Thrones and this is what happened,” a riveting tale of online piracy. As this is the Internet, the comic has already been widely disseminated with many individuals championing it as a justification for piracy, while others have rallied against it as a perfect example of why pirates are big fat babies.

For one view, you can go to what seems to be the first response from Andy Ihnatko, while Devin Faraci also weighed in at Badass Digest.

Both of these gentlemen have mostly targeted the pirates themselves in terms I agree with. Let’s run down that quickly before I move on to something both of them have missed.

HBO is a paid subscription cable service – one of the first and most popular at that. They make the majority of their money by getting people to pay a fee to subscribe and see what they have to offer. Predominantly, HBO licenses movies and shows them. If you want 24 hours of movie options in your own home, you can subscribe to HBO. They also started offering original programming rather early, starting with documentaries and sports programming. They later successfully moved into producing original fiction program, with hits including The Sopranos, Deadwood, and now Game of Thrones.

What the proponents of this comic say is that HBO is making it too difficult for people to watch Game of Thrones. Why can’t they stream it on Netflix, rent it on Amazon, or buy it through iTunes already? Why is it so hard! The answer is simple: HBO is a subscription-based service. They make the vast majority of their money through subscription fees. People subscribe to HBO because they want what it offers. If what you want is to watch Game of Thrones you either subscribe to HBO or you wait until it becomes available via other outlets, which is coming in March.

I pay a premium price to watch the show before people who refuse to pay the premium price. Why should you get to skip the line and the payment? If you don’t want to pay for cable, you don’t get to watch it. If you don’t subscribe to HBO, you don’t get to watch Game of Thrones until it comes out on DVD. It’s simple.

I agree that the cable subscription service is outdated. I wish I could just pay a fee and watch brand new episodes of certain shows. I’m a huge fan of Spartacus on Starz! They streamed the first season concurrently on Netflix, so I watched it. They didn’t do that for Gods of the Arena so I waited and bought the Blu-ray. They decided, for whatever reason, not to stream Spartacus: Vengeance. I wanted to watch it, so what did I do? I subscribed to Starz! It was either that or wait – or pirate?

You can’t get mad at HBO for not offering you the service you want. Or, I mean, I guess you can, but you shouldn’t pirate their programming to “get back at them” for not giving you exactly what you want that you’re unwilling to pay for. I fully encourage you to write to HBO and say that you’d be willing to pay some number of dollars to watch Game of Thrones as it airs on-line or something. Go for it. But pirating their show because you don’t like their service? That’s like stealing a DVD player from Best Buy because they don’t have an express check-out line and you just have the one item. You wait in line or you don’t get the product. You can go somewhere else.

But who does piracy hurt, you ask? What’s the difference between pirating Game of Thrones or The Office? Is it different than pirating a movie?

Pirating from HBO is about the worst type of pirating you can do. Especially if you really want to watch Game of Thrones. At least most people who download music or movies say, “Well, I didn’t want to see/hear it enough to pay for it, so it’s not like they’re losing money.”

In this case, The Oatmeal is saying that he really really wants to watch Game of Thrones. It’s not something he’s just interested in viewing to test the waters. No, in the comic he downloads the entire season and seems to enjoy it. Last I checked even movie pirates say they pay to see the movie when they really really want to.

Beyond that, HBO, again, is a subscription-based service. Their primary business model is licensing movies and sporting events. Original programming is a big expenditure for them. The total budget for Game of Thrones is estimated between $50-60m, which is about $5m an episode.

HBO created Game of Thrones, at this big expense, to entice more people to subscribe to their service. If people do not subscribe to their service to see Game of Thrones, it becomes a source of loss to them and it gets cancelled. HBO doesn’t need Game of Thrones, they have an otherwise successful business that doesn’t include risking $50m.

So every pirate who doesn’t pay to see Game of Thrones hurts it. Everyone who doesn’t subscribe to see Game of Thrones hurts it. HBO needs to generate new subscribers to justify new costs. Game of Thrones can help retain subscribers, which is beneficial, but it also needs to help generate new ones.

Don’t think HBO would cancel something so critically successful? Remember Deadwood? That was a phenomenal show that garnered tons of praise, but at an inflation adjusted cost of $5.7m per episode, it didn’t provide the subscription boost needed to justify the cost. Game of Thrones is already almost as expensive as Deadwood, so we can assume the margin for error here is slim. There are already five books out in the series, with two more on the way – that’s seven seasons, at least, of material. Want to see all seven? Give HBO some of your cash. HBO is a business, an a no nonsense one at that. They recently declined to renew critically acclaimed shows that failed to provide subscriber retention or acquisition, such as Hung and Bored to Death.

I’m not trying to be holier than thou. In the modern day, with so much at your fingertips with so little risk, I’m sure everyone with an Internet connection has done some form of piracy, or recorded and displayed a game without the express written consent of the NFL.

While I think pirating movies is wrong too, movie studios make movies. That’s what they do. HBO is not a movie studio. They don’t generate income from direct receipts. They make money off of subscribers and pirates are not subscribing. Pirating won’t change the way HBO does business. This isn’t a law that discriminates against people based on race or sexuality that we need to fight against. This is a company doing business as it does, selling a product that you want to see – so do the right thing and pay to see it. Pay the subscription fee and sign up for cable or pay less and see it later. That’s how the world works.

As a final aside, I’d also like to point out where The Oatmeal feels some remorse about pirating because author George R.R. Martin won’t get the payment he deserves if the show is pirated. I’m sure Martin has already been paid a great deal by HBO (and his publishers), and is doing just fine. Sure, he’ll make more money the more season there are, but also consider the actors, directors, writers, extras, drivers, set dressers, horse wranglers, caterers, wardrobe people, and construction workers who are employed by the show. George R.R. Martin is doing fine, but if this show ends up cancelled, all those people end up out of work. And yes, many of them are probably doing okay anyway, but losing your job sucks.

In conclusion, the Cliff Notes:

  1. Pirating is wrong.
  2. HBO is a subscription service. You either pay to see it now or you wait and see it later.
  3. HBO and Game of Thrones are particularly vulnerable to pirating because of their subscription service business model.
  4. Hurting Game of Thrones through piracy won’t change HBO’s business, it will just get the show cancelled.
  5. The Oatmeal, while pointing out the flaws in the subscription based business model, is wrong to condone the pirating of material, especially when it is available on DVD and Blu-ray in two weeks.

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