HBO GO crashed during the ‘Game of Thrones’ season premiere. That might be good for HBO.


Emilia Clarke in "Game of Thrones," season 4. (Photo: HBO)

HBO GO had only one job Sunday night: Letting "Game of Thrones" fans watch the premiere of the fourth season. But like Samwell Tarly in his quest to send ravens warning Castle Black about an impending attack, the video streaming service failed to deliver. That still might be a win for HBO.

Fans of the fantasy adaptation of George R.R. Martin's epic "Song of Ice and Fire" series went online to express their dissatisfaction with the service, which became inaccessible for many users around the same time as the premiere episode was scheduled to become live.

HBO responded on Twitter -- first alerting fans it was aware of the "trouble in the realm."

 

It then suggested alternatives including catching it in the OnDemand service through their cable provider and watching a repeat of the episode on HBO later than night.

 

What do both of those alternatives have in common? They weren't available to fans attempting to use someone else's password to watch the program online.

Password sharing is incredibly common for streaming video sites -- a cordcutter will use the login information of a friend, family worker, or, in the case of New York Times reporter Jenna Wortham, a stranger from New Jersey they once met in a Mexican restaurant to access a service, such as Netflix or HBO GO without paying subscription fees. There are trend stories and funny videos starring Tony Soprano about the practice.

HBO was historically only sold packaged with traditional cable. While Comcast started selling HBO bundled with Internet last year, it still remains impossible to purchase access to the HBO GO streaming service on its own with the exception of a pilot project in some Scandinavian countries. Instead, the service is generally treated as a bonus feature. But because of the restrictive way HBO is marketed, the streaming service is even more prone to password sharing -- and the company knows it.

“It’s not that we’re unmindful of it, it just has no impact on the business,” HBO CEO Richard Plepler said in an interview at a Buzzfeed Brews event earlier this year, calling password sharing a “terrific marketing vehicle for the next generation of viewers" that it could potentially convert password sharers into subscribers.

“We’re in the business of creating addicts,” he said then.

With brands like "Game of Thrones" and "True Detective" (whose finale caused a similar crash) it's clear that HBO has succeeded in that mission. That's why "Game of Thrones" is one of the most pirated shows out there -- and why the Internet howled so loudly at losing online access Sunday night. Surely, there were some paying customers put out by the HBO GO issues, but given the alternatives available, the folks most inconvenienced were likely the freeloaders.

Asked for comment, an HBO spokesman acknowledged in a statement that HBO experienced problems due to "overwhelming demand" around the time of the "Game of Thrones" premiere, but said service was "fully restored on all platforms by midnight ET." The company did not address questions asking for more details of what caused the problems, and how many paying customers vs. freeloaders were affected.

HBO's current business model is heavily tied to the cable market, and the company doesn't seem to believe it makes economic sense for it to move to an online-only subscription plan just yet. But by developing HBO Go, the company is investing in a sort of insurance plan for the future that bets on the same television everywhere model where both technology and traditional media companies are starting to stake claims.

The hiccups around "Game of Thrones" and "True Detective" suggest HBO's online capacity is still in development. By keeping HBO GO as an added value and turning a blind eye to password sharing HBO can hope to hook some new addicts, some of whom might even be willing to pay to get the goods as early as possible by the time the season finale comes out.

And even if not, HBO is developing the sort of service it needs to stay competitive in the next entertainment battle -- all the while basking in the glory of having every tech blog run a story about how the overwhelming popularity of their show was just too much for the company's poor servers to handle.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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