For audiences who’ve not read the books, the plot twists and turns of the past four seasons of HBO’s hit Game of Thrones surely came as a shock. For who would have guessed the finale of Season 1 or the outcome of the epic “Red Wedding” episode? Internet reactions to these two plot twists show us that many viewers were caught completely off guard.
Of course, until now, if you really wanted to know what was in store for a character, you could have fairly easily looked it up online. However, as we embark on Season 5, we’re headed into uncharted territory: not only is the Series’ narrative arc reaching the end of the last published book, the series will also start to divert from storyline of the book. What happens in Westeros over the course of Season 5 is going to be a bigger shock to an even greater number of viewers.
Those of us who like spoilers might think: “if only there was a way to predict whose number was up next.” So, could a algorithm help us identify a trend and guess which character’s head will be next on the block?
According to Nicolas Glady, the answer is no, and that's a good thing!
ESSEC Knowledge: How does Game of Thrones keep viewers guessing?
Nicolas Glady: Anything that can be predicted through statistics is, by definition, predictable. To be fair, narrative patterns can often be identified in fiction, and especially in the fantasy genre – making them, predictable, to a certain extent.
Game of Thrones, on the other hand, has been anything but predictable and owes a great deal of its success to the fact that it takes viewers out of their comfort zone and throws them a few curve balls. This is perhaps what has helped Game of Thrones go beyond the typical genre audience to garner mass acclaim.
Game of Thrones underscores the difference between creativity and lack-thereof – between thinking outside the box and following the typical, predictable formula. Indeed, the formula the analyst might have used to predict an outcome gets flipped on its head by a creative story teller.
Still, we can make some pretty educated guesses based on the rhythm of the series: the first episode will launch the plot, the mid-season will be punctuated by tensions and tragedy will strike at episode 9, while in the last episode, the cards will be redistributed. It is therefore possible to know in advance when will events happen, but it is just impossible to know in what they actually consist.
EK: Will the leak diminish viewership for upcoming episodes?
NG: Some of the buzz surrounding Season 5 has been about the leak of the 4 first episodes of the season. Did HBO fail to implement adequate piracy safeguards? Will the leak hurt ratings? Is HBO truly angry about the leak, or does it not matter as much as all that?
Unlike many of its competitors, it doesn’t appear to overtly attack piracy, almost welcoming it. At the time of the release of Season 4, at which time Game of Thrones took top spot for the world’s most (illegally, of course) downloaded series, HBO claimed to be happy with the situation because this reaffirmed their supremacy in the limited sphere of successful series.
Plus, as we said earlier, GoT has based a lot of its success on its ability to keep surprising its viewers. Chances are, episode four, the last episode leaked, will end on a cliffhanger. Indeed, the press screeners were intended as an appetizer for journalists’ consumption, and HBO had likely planned to keep them wanting more.
EK: Should they be more concerned about piracy?
NG: HBO’s policy has taken a modern stance on intellectual property, piracy, and hacking and the implications of these phenomena on revenue streams. Does piracy eat away at the profits of major television networks? But more specifically, would the pirates be willing to pay for what they download illegally? Expert opinions are divided and we do not now have enough information to tip the balance to one side or the other.
Looking at the Game of Thrones case doesn’t help us come to a definitive answer. On the one hand, HBO is a subscription-based service and therefore leaks do not have a fundamental impact on the business model of HBO. On the other hand, the structure of the episodes, and more broadly the seasons, implies a rise in viewership as anticipation builds. So in this instance, if you’ve watched the leaked episodes, there won’t be more to look forward to for another month and you might be less likely to actually tune in and watch.
In fact, many media outlets have learned to master the "leak" as a promotion tool: we’ve been given a free initial dose before getting to the "heart" of the upcoming season. Is this leak in the vein of marketing campaign? Regardless, this situation offers us an opportunity to reflect on the effectiveness of such a strategy.