The Media Column: Game of Thrones holds sway over millions – but can HBO stay king in the streaming era?

Any threat to HBO’s investment in quality drama would hurt British TV

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The Independent Online

It’s nine months since British viewers witnessed the “mother of all finales” with the bloody conclusion of Game of Thrones’ fourth season.

While the scenes of patricide and ice zombie slaying will linger long in the minds of the million-plus viewers who regularly watched the HBO phenomenon on Sky Atlantic, those who didn’t see it have had to wait until today for the DVD release. It is already Amazon’s bestseller, with many Westeros obsessives also investing in the £70 complete “seasons 1-4” Blu-ray package. Game of Thrones accounted for 8.2 per cent of the total television DVD market last year.

Yet allowing so long to pass before delivering the fantasy epic’s latest series to slathering fans appears something of a risk when on-demand digital services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video are giving viewers immediate access to entire series of their favourite dramas.

The Time Warner-owned HBO cable network is widely credited with revolutionising television drama over the past 20 years. A reliable flow of subscription revenue freed the broadcaster from the thumbscrews of overnight ratings, allowing it to invest in long-form, novelistic drama series such as The Sopranos and The Wire.

Those shows went on to deliver huge returns in DVD sales long after their broadcast concluded. Recent successes such as True Detective and the comedies Veep and Girls have continued that run.

HBO is managing the transition to digital – Game Of Thrones is the most downloaded TV show in history – but is not always the beneficiary of its popularity. The season 3 finale became the most pirated programme ever, recording 5.9 million downloads via BitTorrent, with viewers dissatisfied by the lag between its domestic and international availability.

Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner, took a relaxed view, however, calling piracy “better than an Emmy” for furthering interest in Game of Thrones and increasing the number of legitimate HBO subscriptions. As the DVD market contracts and with Netflix having surpassed HBO in US subscribers (not every Game of Thrones fan wants the rest of HBO’s cerebral offerings), the network is hoping to lure more of the pirates on board as paying customers.

It will launch a new streaming service later this year, priced as a “premium product” (perhaps double Netflix’s $8 a month US rate), and hopes that this will do more than simply encourage its current subscriber base to “cut the cable cord” and migrate to an online-only option.

However, the difficult fact for HBO is that viewers have a greater choice in quality drama than ever before. Netflix has delivered acclaimed shows such as House of Cards and Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul, while Amazon’s transgender series Transparent has become the first online show to win a Golden Globe.

And any threat to HBO’s commitment to innovation and investment in quality drama would have wider implications for British television’s ecosystem. The American company invests in UK drama through a  co-production deal with Sky. It also helped to bring BBC1’s new J K Rowling drama, The Casual Vacancy, to screens.

The job of ensuring that HBO maximises returns from its shows falls to Sofia Chang, its executive vice president and general manager. She visited London last week and sampled the latest spin-off from its top-rated show, a pop-up Game of Thrones restaurant in east London serving up a banquet in King’s Landing style surroundings.

The home entertainment market is “evolving”, she said. “The UK is a great example where, over the past three years, the physical category for DVDs is down but HBO has gone up, so there are still pockets of opportunity for physical products.”

Chang has kept a close eye on the music industry, where CD sales contracted by 50 per cent over a decade as record companies struggled to combat piracy and manage the transition to digital.

“We have to offer the customer choice in where they want to shop and how they want to shop,” she said. “We can’t force them in one direction by limiting distribution avenues.”

Could the days of complete series box sets being paraded on shelves as a badge of pride be coming to an end? “As long as we still see demand for the physical product we will create more products to meet that demand. We invest in creating collectible packaging for Game of Thrones because that’s a show where fans really want more of the story. It’s a very active fan base.”

HBO will become swifter in narrowing the window between a hit show’s airing and its home entertainment release, without compromising the channel’s cable subscriber base which must always get the first option to view a programme.

“It’s a balance, to make sure we do what’s best for the larger HBO,” said Chang, whose background is in marketing. “In the past, we operated more of a strict formula about when to release something and I think in the last year we have decided to be more nimble. I think that helps.”

The Lena Dunham show Girls, which attracts a younger audience, is a marker for the future. “That show has done really well for us on the digital platform,” Chang said. “But it also is a strong DVD performer. That’s a good example where we chose not to have a global uniform release date. We released the DVD in the UK four to six weeks in advance of the US.”

HBO, launched in 1972, looks as though it will weather the digital revolution. Time Warner’s quarterly figures last week showed revenue from HBO up 6.2 per cent, with Game of Thrones and True Detective boosting subscription retention.

Sofia Chang enthused about a new documentary series, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicles the events surrounding three murders and is tipped to become the network’s answer to the cult crime podcast Serial.

UK viewers will be offered a card containing a digital code that will unlock a choice between entire series of Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire or True Detective which can be screened  on-demand via an iPod or iPhone.

Anticipation is at fever pitch for the fifth series of Game of Thrones, with a sixth already commissioned. The show’s marauding march will continue with exhibitions, featuring series props, alongside the restaurant. A theme park cannot be far off.

“We’re interested in any activity that creates greater awareness and  more exposure to  our programming,” Chang said.

A Rooney Rule for sports media

It is estimated that up to 30 per cent of professional footballers in the English professional leagues are black. But how many black football writers were sent to cover the 2014 World Cup in Rio by national newspapers?

Not one, according to a biting report by the Black Collective of Media in Sports (BCOMS), a body founded by sports media professionals seeking to improve the  under-representation of black people.

The BCOMS diversity report found that while the number of black television sports pundits – generally former footballers and athletes – was increasing, only one black sports presenter was involved in coverage across all of last summer’s major sporting events.

The report asks: “What message are we sending out to the next generation? That in order to have a chance at a career in the sports media you need to have won an Olympic medal or played 500 games in the Premier League?”

The solution lies in the Rooney Rule, which requires American NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs.

The report concludes: “As football debates whether to adopt the Rooney Rule, it is time for sports media to have the very same discussion.”

NME must strike new notes
Nineties band Suede still delivers print sales for NME, but not enough of them

On Wednesday, Suede will be handed the climactic Godlike Genius honour at the NME Awards, a traditionally boozy bash that will be held at the O2 Academy, Brixton.

It’s unfortunate that the event is taking place a week after the venerable music magazine’s circulation crashed to just 13,995, down 23 per cent on the same period two years ago, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures.

The NME attracted 300,000 readers in its heyday and has long been a victim, along with the other, now defunct “inky” print titles, of the migration of music fans to digital sources of news. In an era of careerist musicians, the print version still relies on Nineties survivors such as Suede and Manic Street Preachers to deliver sales and copy.

Owner Time Inc UK has been patient with the 62-year-old New Musical Express. But drastic action is required. At £2.40, NME is too expensive for its target audience and should consider a free future, given away at student halls, concert venues and bars.