The HBO show Game of Thrones has become something of a symbol for TV piracy as a response to lack of availability, ever since it was used as an example in a comic by Matthew Inman (which was then reprised as a post by MG Siegler, minus the jokes). This is probably because it's ridiculously addictive (once you start watching, there's no way you're going to stop before someone stabs that Joffrey kid). This month the second season began, and after all the criticisms of their distribution scheme, HBO accidentally threw frustrated online viewers a bone by leaking the second episode nearly a week ahead of schedule—someone working on the Dutch edition of HBO Go must have accidentally flipped a switch, and winter came early. But before that happened, the season premier aired to a massive ratings jump, which most people anticipated. Why? Because, they reasoned, the nine-month gap between seasons gave new viewers a chance to catch up with (and get hooked on) the series by watching season one on HBO On Demand and HBO Go.
It's a good theory, but only some are prepared to mention the elephant in the room: plenty of people (quite possibly the majority) caught up through unauthorized streams and torrents, just like Matthew Inman. And that brings us to the bigger elephant lurking in the whole house: how much has piracy contributed to the rise of HBO-style television? Would we have complex, high-concept, critically acclaimed shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones without it? Many people attribute this fundamental shift in the nature of popular television, from episodic towards serialized, to DVDs and legitimate digital sources—but I'd wager that piracy is a much more significant factor.
There are two main reasons. Firstly, the ability to watch any episode any time makes such can't-miss-an-episode shows less of a commitment. This, alone, is the single biggest contributing factor to the popularity of heavily serialized television, and it is impossible to explain it entirely with DVDs and sources like iTunes. Many cable subscribers turn to piracy as a way to catch missed episodes, and that safety net prevents serialized shows from alienating viewers and losing momentum. Secondly, unauthorized sources are especially popular with the fanatics—the people who evangelize "must watch" shows to their friends and coworkers, and who create memes with screencaps to spread on Tumblr and Facebook. That's not to mention the amateur critics and TV bloggers who generate buzz (in fact, there is a bit of a back and forth going on over the ethics of piracy in the critic community).
Of course, as digital offerings get better, more and more of this kind of activity happens through legitimate channels instead of piracy (not like anyone's been saying that all along, or anything). But services like Netflix got to the table once the serial television trend was in full-swing, so they don't account for its inception. Some people fear that television piracy will put at end to such ambitious undertakings in the medium—but they should stop to consider the hand it played in making them possible to begin with.