On 11 April 2015, episodes of the hit show Game of Thrones were leaked to the web. The leak constituted a rare event whereas a massively popular and highly anticipated title became available through piracy prior to its official release. This temporary incentive to pirate seems to have harmed the TV viewership of the leaked show but also of other shows sharing their audience with Game of Thrones.
Four episodes of the hit TV show Game of Thrones were leaked to the web a day before the show’s season official premiere. HBO decided to follow through with the weekly episode schedule. The show’s cable ratings in the following weeks fell down below those from the previous season for the first time since the show started in 2011. They returned to their previous level only by the end of the season, marking the only time that the 8-season show did not record a meaningful year-to-year increase in TV viewers.
Game of Thrones remains one of the most popular TV shows of all time, having earned numerous awards and gathering record numbers of devoted fans. The unprecedented situation of the leak provided a huge incentive to the millions of viewers to pirate the show instead of waiting weeks to see what happens next. As many of those viewers have not used unauthorised sources before, this might have contributed to a popularisation of piracy – similar to what was found by Danaher et al. (2010).
To verify whether this was the case, I have collected data on first-day viewership of more than fifty TV shows aired around the time of the leak. The information was additionally supplied with data on episode ratings from the IMDb service. Finally, I used several online recommendation services like Tastedive, Jinni or IMDb to identify the shows that were the most attractive to the audience of Game of Thrones.
The episode ratings cannot explain the sudden break in the trend of Game of Thrones viewership (see Figure 1). A simple model fit on the data for prior episodes predicted a higher viewership. The fall in the viewership of Game of Thrones was also unique across the sample of studied TV Shows. Still, due to the uniqueness of Game of Thrones itself (e.g. it was the only show in the sample to record a growing number of viewers throughout its whole life) it is difficult to say with certainty if the break was induced by the leak. This is because a ‘difference-in-differences’ analysis requires reference groups with similar prior trends.
Fig. 1 Game of Thrones ratings, viewership, and predicted viewership
Note: The horizontal axis shows episode numbers (1-10; row 1) in each of the seasons (1-6; row 2). The vertical line marks the leak, which occurred just before the first episode of season 5. The prediction is based on an OLS model on the sample of seasons 1-4, with the logarithm of viewership as an explaining variable; and the previous episode’s viewership, the previous episode’s ratings, the season number, and the dummies for season premieres and finales as explaining variables. The seventh season had the highest viewership numbers of all the seasons, but is not included here because it had a different number of episodes (seven) and a very different (summer) air date schedule (July-August).Source: IMDb and Nielsen (as reported on Wikipedia) data. The IMDb ratings come from IMDb public use files, downloaded on 23 June 2017.
However, a second analysis shows that the shows sharing audience with Game of Thrones also experienced lower viewership after the leak. This finding is consistent with the notion of viewers learning to use pirate sources and using them also for other TV shows. I further support this final conclusion by looking at the Google Trends data for phrases including TV show names and the words “watch online”. For the series sharing their audience with Game of Thrones, the popularity of such searches in Google steadily increased following the leak.
Notably, these results pertain to the traditional TV scheduling, with non-flexible weekly premieres. It is unclear whether the same patterns would occur for VOD services, especially considering that their schedule could be readjusted. Still, the findings highlight the existence of temporary barriers to piracy that can be lifted if a sufficiently strong incentive becomes present.
This article is based on:
Hardy, W. Brace yourselves, pirates are coming! The effects of Game of Thrones leak on TV viewership. Journal of Cultural Economics (2021).
About the author:
Wojciech Hardy is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Economic Sciences, University of Warsaw and a researcher at the Digital Economy Lab of the University of Warsaw.
Danaher, B., Dhanasobhon, S., Smith, M.D., Telang, R., 2010. Converting Pirates Without Cannibalizing Purchasers: The Impact of Digital Distribution on Physical Sales and Internet Piracy. Marketing Science 29, 1138–1151.
About the image: “Game of Thrones S03 Filming October 2012 Location : Essaouira, Morocco” by Mohamed Amine L is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0