‘Game of Thrones': How HBO Beat Its Hackers

Leaked secrets for Sunday’s Season 7 finale failed to prevent episode from hitting viewership high

When hackers unlocked troves of plot secrets about “Game of Thrones” and other HBO shows, they may have thought HBO would pay a king’s ransom to keep them from leaking everything. But HBO refused, and that gamble appears to have paid off.

At least so far.

The hacking group calling itself Mr. Smith demanded over $6 million in bitcoin from HBO to prevent leaks of files, the most prized of which contained “Game of Thrones” Season 7 scripts and information for unaired episodes.

But HBO appears to have held its ground by offering a mere pittance that hackers did not accept, leading to weekly data dumps over the ensuing two months — including a detailed outline of Sunday’s Season 7 finale.

Only one actual episode of “Thrones” leaked this season, but HBO has said that was unrelated to the hack. HBO declined to comment for this story.

The leaks didn’t stop “Thrones” from hitting numerous viewership highs in recent weeks, including for Sunday’s finale. The repercussions from the hackers’ leaks appear to have been insignificant.

Did viewers deliberately avoid spoilers?

“Leaks, spoilers and indeed illegal downloading do not affect the desire to view live among fans who are committed to seeing episodes as soon as they air, whether it is a popular series such as ‘GoT’ or a cult favorite such as ‘Supernatural,'” Rhiannon Bury, an associate professor at Athabasca University, told TheWrap.

Bury, co-author of “Television 2.0: Viewer and Fan Engagement with Digital TV,” said fans appreciate “feeling like one is a part of something communal on a national and even global scale.” Tweeting along adds to that sense of community.

“Viewing ‘GoT’ on Sunday nights needs to also be understood as a leisure activity that is part of one’s personal routine for X number of weeks,” Bury added.

Brian Ott, professor and department chair of communication studies at Texas Tech University, doesn’t believe that a sense of a community is enough to explain why fans wait. The jaw-dropping spectacles of “Thrones” encourage fans to watch the show as it is meant to be seen.

“Most ‘GoT’ viewers are not casual viewers — they’re fans,” the co-author of “It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era” told TheWrap. “So they don’t want to be exposed to anything that would spoil the viewing experience for them. When I miss an episode of ‘GoT,’ I just plain avoid social media so as not to be exposed to spoilers until I can watch the episode.”

Shawn McIntosh, assistant professor of English and communications at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and co-author of “Converging Media,” told TheWrap that hackers may have underestimated how much “fantasy and sci-fi fans tend to be very devoted to their series and characters in ways that more realistic series don’t engender to the same degree.”

“I do think there is something to be said about a sense of loyalty among ‘GoT’ fans or a sense of not wanting to spoil their viewing experience, that other series — such as ‘Orange Is the New Black’ — I don’t think had,” McIntosh continued.

That Netflix show was also the victim of hackers.

Irving Yacine Belateche, a part-time lecturer at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts who has written scripts for HBO, told TheWrap that it isn’t the appeal of appointment viewing or the communal experience that prevents “GoT” fans from being sated by the leaks.

“The ‘GoT’ fanbase who watch the show legally, through their HBO subscriptions, has been strong and growing, and they aren’t suddenly going to stop their HBO subscription because they can watch a hacked version of the show,” he said. “Those who are watching the hacked version are a separate audience.”

Neil Landau, author of “TV Outside the Box” and head of the Writing for Television program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, said that “Thrones” fans treat the show as they would a beloved novel, and that they “relish those final pages till the bitter end.”

“Suspense still has currency in communal, serialized storytelling,” he told TheWrap. “And with an abbreviated season, who wants to speed up experience of discovery?”