Game of Thrones, HBO's phenomenally successful series adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels, returns for a fifth season in less than an hour (as of this writing), and as the latest TV spots indicate, the players scheming for power in Westeros and beyond are entering a new and even more deadly phase of the story.
Season 5 is expected to catch up to - and perhaps surpass - Martin's published novels and thus tread some tricky narrative ground. Despite the risks involved, Game of Thrones is certain to keep hitting massive ratings highs, but a new report suggests that for the next few weeks, GoT could face an uphill battle when it comes to retaining its viewership.
Forbes reports that the first four episodes of Game of Thrones Season 5 have leaked online ahead of tonight's premiere. The episodes are being downloaded on various torrent-sharing sites and, since Saturday, April 11th, have been downloaded at least 800,000 times. The total number is expected to top a million downloads by the time the Season 5 premiere airs this evening.
The source of the leak is thought to be any number of screener DVDs of the first four episodes which were sent out to the press. This development isn't much of a shock; over the years, Game of Thrones has consistently held the dubious honor of being the most pirated TV show currently airing.
According to NBC News, HBO has released the following statement following the leak:
"Sadly, it seems the leaked four episodes of the upcoming season of Game of Thrones originated from within a group approved by HBO to receive them. We're actively assessing how this breach occurred."
Some of the HBO brass has seemed oddly proud of how much Game of Thrones is pirated - Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes said in 2014: “Our experience is [piracy] leads to more penetration, more paying subs, more health for HBO, less reliance on having to do paid advertising…" However, now the cable network has launched its standalone streaming service HBO Now for $14.99 a month and is banking on the highly anticipated GoT Season 5 premiere to draw subscribers to its new platform.
Torrent tracking news site Torrent Freak reports that the episodes are available in SD (standard definition), which means they were most definitely ripped from DVD. With the leaked episodes certain to pass a million downloads, it's unclear at this point just how much it will affect the season premiere's live airing.
Ultimately, this might not have much of an effect at all. HBO cable subscribers are likely to tune in every week anyway, and the illegal downloaders are actually in the minority among the television viewing public. We'll know more once the numbers are in after the episode airs.
Game of Thrones returns Sunday April 12th @ 10PM on HBO.