On Saturday, the first four episodes of “Game of Thrones'” fifth season leaked onto the internet. It was 24 hours before the season’s official premiere, and on the same day HBO launched the heavily promoted HBO Now, a direct-subscription service aimed at providing a legal alternative to piracy for viewers without cable TV. The episodes have now been downloaded over a million times.
No one knows the source of the leak, but news reports and online scuttlebutt quickly turned towards TV critics. It happens nearly every time there’s a prominent leak, even though the absence of digital watermarks or “burn-ins” typically used to mark copies sent to the press often indicates a source higher up the postproduction. But in this case, the reportedly blurred areas of the leaked episodes and their standard-def quality does seem to tie them to a press mailing. “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,” HBO said in a statement.
As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff pointed out, HBO’s wording is sufficiently vague that there’s no way of telling how many non-critics might be on HBO’s mailing list, or indeed, how many mailing lists there might be. “There are lots and lots of groups approved by HBO, including services that translate episodes into other languages and essentially everybody who works in post-production on the show. Especially with a massive show like ‘Game of Thrones,’ the size of that latter group is significant.” People who think critics are the only ones who get early access to content don’t know much about how the industry works. It’s worth noting, too, that TV critics got their “Game of Thrones” screeners almost two weeks before the premiere, so if a critic was going to intentionally leak them, you’d think they’d have done so earlier. In online piracy, there’s no prize for second place.
More to the point, why would they? I’ll admit the mindset of people who leak content online is utterly alien to me. I certainly understand the drive to download: We all want cool stuff, and if it’s free for the taking, why not take it? (There are, of course, lots of good reasons not to, especially in the case of a massively expensive show like “Game of Thrones.” But that’s a debate for another time.) But to take something others put their time and money into and willfully fling it out to the masses as if it’s yours to distribute? That I don’t get at all. But even if we stipulate that there’s someone who makes some part of a living writing about TV who thinks it’s cool or subversive to Fight the System, the risks of getting caught are just too great. You’d never get another screener, never be able to take an assignment that depended on one — and that’s assuming any publication would want to employ you. Why set your career on fire for a handful of cool points? More to the point, why give up the advance access that is one of critics’ few remaining perquisites? Being, for a few days or weeks, one of a tiny handful of people to have seen something highly anticipated is a rare privilege. Why give it up?
I’ve seen a few people suggest that the simple answer to that last question is “For the money.” But I don’t know of any instances of torrent sites paying for content, which would blow an enormous hole in their habitual claim that they’re neutral gateways for the distribution of information. It’s also possible because the answer is “Because that particular critic is an idiot and/or an asshole” — both things that have been known to be true — or because someone left a screener lying around carelessly or loaned it to someone they shouldn’t have. (A colleague passed on a story of a critic who let his college-age son borrow a screener, which was then pirated by the son’s roommate.) If it was intentional, the critic should be held accountable both professional and legally; if accidental, they probably need to have their access restricted until they come up with a better way of keeping track of valuable intellectual property.
Why does it matter? Because in the wake of the leak, it’s likely that HBO will crack down on screeners, and possibly eliminate them altogether, which will both make critics’ jobs harder to do and, in many cases, degrade the quality of their work. (Look at the reviews of “Mad Men’s” “Severance,” which was sent out weeks in advance, and the instant-turnaround recaps of last night’s “New Business,” which wasn’t. The difference can be stark.) And because it opens the door for arguments like the one put forth by Forbes’ Paul Tassi:
In the future, I suspect HBO may be a bit more restrictive about handing out “Game of Thrones” screeners to press, given the event-like nature of the show and its reliance on keeping spoilers close to the chest. I’ve read various articles about critics’ “impressions” of the first four episodes, but I really don’t see why commentary like that needs to exist in the first place. In my estimation, TV reviews are for discussion and analysis after an episode airs, exactly when everyone wants to talk about it. Why do we need vague hints about what’s to come in the first portion of the season? I don’t see how that does anyone any good, and in the case of “Game of Thrones,” it’s not as if the show needs extra hype.
The equation of criticism with “extra hype,” the conflation of episode-focused reviews with pieces focused on broader themes that can peek around the corner without blowing major plot turns — the fallacies are packed in tight. (Although yes, some of the aggressively spoilerphobic early “reviews” that avoid discussing even the most minor plot development can get pretty ridiculous.) For one thing, having recaps up right after the show airs requires seeing them in advance; delays eat into the audience, which means they cost the publications critics work for money and in turn makes their jobs less viable. But it’s also because, to an extent Tassi should know even if the general public doesn’t, critics already put up with so much in the name of avoiding piracy. Imagine watching an episode of your favorite show. Now imagine watching in your laptop with your email address and a copyright notice burned into every frame, or fighting a perpetually buffering stream as a countdown clock ticks down in the corner — and doing all that while maintaining an emotional connection to the work so that you can pay it the respect it deserves. Putting up with such difficulties, and fighting through them, is part of the job (and one that bears a whole lot of complaining about, at that). But if lax “Game of Thrones” security has its consequences, tightening it too much does, too.