Viewers of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” are forgiven if they found themselves distracted during its most recent episode Sunday — not by Jon Snow’s interactions with the wildling Ygritte, but by the magnificent scenery surrounding them. These scenes taking place North of the Wall were filmed in Iceland, one of three locations used in Season Two along with Croatia and the headquarters in Belfast. One can practically feel the cold air along with Snow as he trudges through the frozen and beautiful terrain.
Now, imagine how these scenes would look if “Game of Thrones” weren’t on HBO but instead had a home on network TV: Cue the snow machines and make sure the green screens are in place on the studio back lot. Actually, even that isn’t realistic. “Game of Thrones” couldn’t exist on network TV, or even basic cable channels such as FX or AMC. Its epic scale — huge cast, 106 shooting days, two crews working simultaneously and a roughly $70 million budget for Season Two alone — can only exist on HBO (and maybe Showtime; I haven’t forgotten about you guys). HBO, as of now, exists thanks to a subscriber-based formula through cable companies and from DVD sales. By pouring a healthy chunk of those subscriber fees (it gets about half of what is earned from new viewers) back into programming, the channel has built itself an impressive television empire, routinely delivering some of the best programming around. More money combined with the ability to include violence, language and nudity (even if gratuitously) equals showrunners and writers having the creative freedom to tell the stories they want to tell, just how they want to tell them. Essentially, you pay for what you get.
That is why it is both puzzling and frustrating when items such as the much-posted Oatmeal comic about pirating “Game of Thrones” come along, or this news that the series is on track to be the most pirated of 2012: “By [BitTorrent-tracking and analysis firm Big Champagne’s] rough estimate, the second season of the show has been downloaded more than 25 million times from public torrent trackers since it began in early April, and its piracy hit a new peak following April 30th’s episode, with more than 2.5 million downloads in a day.” It certainly has a lot of fans, but many of them, it seems, want to view it on their terms and their terms only. But if those terms are stealing, and the show is created on the premise that it will be paid for with subscriptions, then the pirates are potentially putting in jeopardy the very object they claim to love. HBO is successful at what it does, to be sure, but if the trend of skipping cable and pirating TV only worsens, will it continue to be? No subscribers, no shows.
I agree the system is flawed and cable options need revamping, i.e., being able to build your own package. It would be nice if HBO offered HBO GO (online component featuring the channel’s entire catalog of original series and a slew of movies in rotation) to non-subscribers for a fee, or even sell episodes of series on iTunes or Amazon immediately after they air. The price for those services would be higher than for other series from other networks, however, and I can hear the millions of pirates crying out against paying a fee for what they can just as easily steal. So, because the basic “taking things that don’t belong to you is bad” argument doesn’t seem to be sticking, I’ll focus on the creative one. If you love “Game of Thrones” — if you love compelling TV, such as HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” “Veep,” “Enlightened,” “Girls,” “Eastbound & Down,” “Hung” and “True Blood,” and Showtime’s “Homeland,” “Dexter,” “Nurse Jackie,” “The Borgias” and “Weeds” — then you should support the channels, and therefore the artists, that deliver them. A key point in the Oatmeal comic, which made the rounds a week or two before Season One was released on DVD, is that money spent on an HBO subscription or on DVDs only goes to George R. R. Martin’s pocket, as if it doesn’t take a small army to produce the series. This idea that Martin and HBO have plenty of money and can easily live without yours is almost as troublesome as the demand for instant gratification with entertainment. If you don’t want cable, fine: don’t get it. But why then can’t you wait for the DVDs to be released, or go watch “Game of Thrones” with a friend who has HBO? Somehow technological advances have convinced us that everything under the sun should be attainable quickly and for free, and things just can’t work like that. You like Pajiba? Then you’re going to have to deal with pop-up ads because those are what help keep Pajiba alive in the first place. We don’t do this for free, and those involved with film, TV and music generally aren’t creating work so it can be freely distributed, either.
Just because an artist or company is successful does not mean he, she or it is invulnerable. Even HBO has its limits; “Game of Thrones” has been light on battle sequences or the appearance of Daenerys’ dragons surely because of budget restraints. Myles McNutt discussed a fan’s complaint of the lack of battles on this week’s /Film “Game of Thrones” "_blank">podcast “A Cast of Kings,” featuring our own Joanna Robinson: Would it kill them to show the battles?, the fan asked. Yeah, it would, McNutt, of Cultural Learnings, answered. Even with such a hefty budget, money can be tight and scenes are cut or not even attempted. It was the budget and apparent fighting with Paramount that killed the brilliant “Deadwood” after only three seasons and “Carnivàle” and “Rome” after two. HBO executives may not have the same trigger fingers as those who populate the offices of networks, but a spot on premium cable doesn’t guarantee success or longevity. Sometimes, the shows just get too big.
True, “Game of Thrones” has a bigger place in pop culture than those short-lived series, and it’s not on death’s door — Season Three has been ordered. But a complete telling of Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” isn’t guaranteed, and the millions of fans stealing the show aren’t helping. Have we forgotten that TV didn’t always use to be this good? Without premium cable, we likely never would have met this guy:
Or this guy:
Their stories — that’s Omar Little from “The Wire” and Al Swearengen from “Deadwood” for the uninitiated — don’t appear out of thin air; countless men and women earn their livelihoods creating them. It’s show business, after all. Stealing from them is not only wrong, it hurts their opportunity to continue to work and our opportunity to continue to enjoy the outcome of the work. Real fans support the artists they admire. Pay up while there’s still something to pay for.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in Texas.