ratings Game of Thrones foxtel fail

Oh dear. The gang from Game of Thrones returned yesterday, plotting, killing and babbling about thrones and dragons — as they are wont to do — in the seventh series of the massively popular, fabulously addictive blockbuster fantasy. And the damn thing fell over.

Not the show itself, which is cranking along just fine — commencing with an impressive (even for GoT) deaths-per-average-minute-of-running-time ratio. The problem was with the streaming service provider delivering the series to those Australians doing the right thing and accessing the world of Westeros legally.

That streaming provider is Foxtel Now. When fans came home from work and hit the platform hard, as they were always going to, it behaved like a slayed Stark, collapsing in front of viewers’ dragon-craving eyes.

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Following a livid response on social media, Foxtel published a Facebook post announcing it was “devastated that due to unprecedented demand, we are experiencing problems with our online services”.

[A torrenting winter is coming]

This was the nightmare situation for Foxtel. Knowing that GoT is the mother of all pay TV drawcards, the company revamped its interface and pricing structure in the lead-up to the new series. Last night’s debacle earned its social media co-ordinator a week — at least — of stress leave. It also generated tonnes of media coverage.

At 10 minutes past 11pm, a press release from the company landed in my inbox that left a bad taste in my mouth. It was headlined “Game of Thrones Phenomenon Crash Sites Across the Globe!”.

See what they did there? Rather than issue a mea culpa, the company instead used the occasion to remind us how insanely awesome and popular its key acquisition is. Which. We. Couldn’t. Watch. Foxtel also explained the technical issues as resulting from “the unprecedented rush for a subscription just prior to the telecast”.

But was it really unprecedented? Game of Thrones is the most popular television series in the world, and its American online carrier, HBO Go, has had technical issues during GoT premieres for the previous few years. Surely that establishes a very clear precedent. I assumed Foxtel would have treated its GoT bandwidth in the way one provides booze for a wedding reception: you over-supply, or you risk never living it down.

[What Murdoch really gets out of Time Warner (and it’s not Westeros)]

The GoT hullabaloo arrives shortly after SBS On Demand copped blowback for its handling of another of this year’s pedigree TV productions, the acclaimed Handmaid’s Tale. Viewers complained that advertisements (which are standard on SBS) began auto-playing in irritating moments. For example, while the characters are in mid-sentence.

These unsatisfying user experiences invariably prompt a deluge social media comments that read along the lines of “screw you, I’ll now download this without paying”.

This is not a particularly helpful discourse; users surrender the moral high ground when they argue bad service equals a moral justification for piracy (it is an incentive, absolutely, but a justification is something quite different). That’s like saying if you receive an overcooked steak at a restaurant, or poor service from the waiter, you are entitled not only to leave without paying, but also to return whenever you like for a free feed.

The GoT and Handmaid’s Tale controversies are part of a necessary conversation about what we hope for — and expect from — our streaming service providers. It is easy to forget — though I am not excusing such poor form, particularly from Foxtel — that they are quite new in the scheme of things (Netflix and Stan launched in 2015 and Foxtel Now, then called Foxtel Play, in 2013). The conversation will persist, as it should, until the major players get it right.

But while we talk about this, we should also be talking about something else. The question of television content quotas has recently resurfaced with relation to streaming service providers. Following an inquiry last month into the sustainability of the local film and TV industry, the Department of Communications is expected to hand down recommendations later this year, addressing whether the likes of Netflix and Stan ought to be forced to produce a certain amount of Australian content.

We know what free-to-air TV in this country would look like if our current content quotas had not been introduced: in a word, imported. I recently wrote on this subject for Daily Review. The following comment in response to my article stuck in my mind: “When the economic rationalists came for our automotive industry, many Australians didn’t believe we could lose it. Now it’s gone.” Indeed.

Should we continue to discuss, with great fervour and passion, the manner with which we watch (or struggle to watch) the latest adventures of the Starks, Lannisters and members of the Night’s Watch? Of course. But other subjects that aren’t exactly trivial — such as the future of the Australian film and TV industry —  are worth talking about too.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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