'Game of Thrones' breaks HBO GO. Password borrowers to blame?

'Game of Thrones' Season 4 première was so popular it crashed HBO GO, the network's on-demand streaming service. But if 'Game of Thrones' record-breaking illegal download numbers are any indication, the affected fans weren't all paying customers.

Helen Sloan/AP/File
Charles Dance portrays Tywin Lannister in a scene from 'Game of Thrones.' Demand for the TV show's Season 4 première crashed HBO GO, leaving some fans without access to the service for several hours.

It’s becoming the Internet-age equivalent of the “M*A*S*H” finale toilet flush – shutting down HBO GO.

Live TV ratings aren’t in yet, but last night’s long-awaited Season 4 première of “Game of Thrones” was a successful one: so successful, in fact that fans logging in to reunite with the Starks, Lannisters, and the rest of the citizens of Westeros overwhelmed HBO’s on-demand streaming provider, HBO GO.  Many were met with interminable loading times and the message, “Fatal error: Failed to load the service definitions.”

“Looks like there’s trouble in the realm,” tweeted HBO GO’s official Twitter account, in response. “Apologies for the inconvenience. We’ll be providing updates, so please stay tuned.”

“Having trouble accessing @HBO GO? Send a raven,” read a later tweet. @GameOfThrones will be available soon on HBO On Demand with some cable providers.”

Users on Reddit and Twitter weren’t so amused, and the network issued a more formal apology later in the evening:

“HBO GO did experience issues due to overwhelming demand around the premiere of ‘Game of Thrones.” HBO later said in a press statement. “The service has returned to several platforms and we are working hard towards full recovery, which we expect soon."

The “Games of Thrones” première is the second crash in a month for HBO GO: The finale for “True Detective,” the crime drama starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, also flooded the service, with many users shut out or watching a load screen for hours. Afterward, Time Warner chief executive Jeff Bewkes promised investors that his company would invest more in HBO GO to prevent such a thing from happening again.

But in all likelihood,  “Game of Thrones” and “True Detective” fans affected by the HBO GO outages weren’t entirely made up of paying HBO subscribers. It’s common, if not yet quantifiable knowledge that many people watch HBO GO content using login information and passwords given to them by a friend or relative. It was frequently remarked upon last night by Twitter users, including @WalterHickey, who tweeted, “Hey, come on HBO GO, one of my roommate’s parents [grandparents?] are paying good money for this.”

“Game of Thrones," too, has already proven popular with those on the other side of the HBO paywall. Last year’s Season 3 finale became the most-shared illegal download in history, according to numbers from the file-sharing and copyright news website TorrentFreak.  Season 4’s première has already broken that record, racking up over a million illegal shares in less than half a day. The response even prompted London police to crack down on illegal download sites in anticipation of the première.

HBO GO password shares don’t technically count as pirating, but HBO is well aware if the problem. One tweet from the company, in fact, seemed particularly pointed: “We're sorry for all of the trouble, but if you're an @HBO subscriber, the @GameOfThrones premiere replays at 11 PM EST.”

Still, the network isn’t especially concerned that so many people are watching “Game of Thrones” for  free, likely because it increases its fan base and cultural footprint. Last year, HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo told Entertainment Weekly that the rampant downloads were “a compliment of sorts.” While saying that HBO has a firm antipiracy policy, he noted that his biggest concern was that pirated copies would be of poorer quality than the original show.

HBO has said in the past that it was considering offering HBO GO as a separate product for noncable subscribers, which could reduce the number of illegal downloads, not to mention password borrowers. 

UPDATE: The 9 p.m. broadcast of the Season 4 debut drew 6.6 million viewers, a record for "Game of Thrones and the highest viewership for HBO since 'The Sopranos' series finale in 2007. 

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