Want an interesting case study in shifting media consumption habits? Look no further than HBO’s Game of Thrones. Although plenty of consumers are enjoying the show via premium cable subscription (4.4 million viewers tuned in to the third-season Easter Sunday premiere), it’s impossible to figure out how many millions more are thrilling to the latest battlefield brawls via pirated files and passed-around HBO GO subscriptions (more than 1 million people downloaded bit torrents of the episode within a day of its initial broadcast). Game of Thrones isn’t the highest-rated show in TV history, but it is the most pirated.
Underemployed and pop-culture-obsessed Millennials particularly loathe what they perceive as unfair pricing monopolies in the cable-dominated content distribution system. Cord cutters eager for the likes of HBO to acknowledge their growing ranks petitioned the network online in the summer of 2012, asking that it offer its HBO GO streaming service as a standalone subscription. The grassroots campaign, Take My Money, HBO!, was gently rebuffed via the network’s official Twitter account.
But as evidence mounts that the company’s offerings are the most pirated on the Web, and that Millennial “kids” are glomming onto their parents’ cable-package-based streaming services, HBO appears to be softening its stance. HBO CEO Richard Plepler is now publicly mulling the possibility of bundling HBO GO with broadband cable Internet service provider packages, while acknowledging that the network would have to make “the math work” before making any bold decisions.
While content providers and creators are carefully considering new distribution and funding models, consumers are busy busting down content-access barriers. The harsh reality for brands: Give the people what they want at a price they feel is fair, or be prepared for them to find it elsewhere for free — by any digital means necessary.