Will Foxtel reap its Game of Thrones bounty?

A Lannister might always pay his debts, but will viewers be willing to part with their gold after Foxtel locked away the new season of Game of Thrones?

The wait is finally over for Australians awaiting the series return of Game of Thrones, unless of course they don't fancy handing over their money to Foxtel. The continent of Westeros is now the sole domain of the pay TV giant, which offers the only legit way for Australians to watch Game of Thrones Season 4 each week.

iTunes and Quickflix customers can no longer watch it week-by-week this year -- they're forced to wait until Foxtel has finished screening the entire season. Will they concede and pay the gold price to Foxtel, or will they pay the iron price and simply steal it? After watching previous seasons week-by-week, they're unlikely to be happy playing the waiting game when Game of Thrones is such a popular water cooler topic.

The battle for Westeros is shaping up to be a pivotal one as Australia's content providers look for new ways to combat piracy. It's also central to Foxtel's push to establish a foothold in more Australian lounge rooms.

To Foxtel's credit, it has embraced the brave new online world with the launch of Foxtel Play -- an IPTV service which lets customers escape the need for an expensive home Foxtel subscription and lock-in contract. Such a concept was unthinkable a few years ago, but Foxtel saw the writing on the wall. With talk of the National Broadband Network, winter was coming and the pay TV incumbents decided embracing the internet was a wiser play than ignoring it.

Foxtel Play works out a little cheaper each month than a home subscription, depending on the content you're chasing, and it's available on a wide range of devices such as computers, tablets, game consoles and internet-enabled home entertainment gear. Rights deals still occasionally create a frustrating schism between what you see at home and what you see online -- especially with live sport -- but the situation is improving.

While looking forward, Foxtel is still up to its same old tricks. Even online, Foxtel is locking away content and forcing customers to pay for bloated packages when they perhaps only want a single channel or program. It's a strategy which will only get you so far in this country.

Last year incoming Foxtel chief executive Richard Freudenstein announced an ambitious goal to break the 30 per cent barrier and get Foxtel into half of Australian lounge rooms. It's a big ask for a country that hasn't been indoctrinated into a US-style pay TV culture; in the States, 85 per cent of homes pay for at least basic cable.

For years Foxtel take-up has languished just under 30 per cent, held back by expensive entry-level plans, the wealth of content on free-to-air television and a general reluctance by the public to pay for what they consider should be free. The fact that Foxtel still expects you to sit through ad breaks only adds insult to injury.

With take-up rates refusing to budge, it's clear that anyone who wants Foxtel at today's prices is already paying for it. The path to growth lies in improving value for money. Rather than slashing prices, which is difficult when you're paying top dollar for rights deals with sporting codes and movie houses, Foxtel is aiming to make its service more valuable by ensuring it has more content you can't watch elsewhere.

Of course live sport has always been the golden goose of television, in Australia and around the world. But Foxtel already offers every AFL match each week in high-definition, with half of the games unavailable on free-to-air. Live AFL matches are difficult, but not impossible, to find elsewhere online. Yet even when it's holding footy fans to ransom, Foxtel still can't pry open more wallets. What hope has Game of Thrones got of making much headway, when anyone with a half-decent internet connection can download this week's episode for free via BitTorrent in less time than it takes to sign up for Foxtel and hand over your credit card details?

Joffrey isn't the only king with a lot riding on this season of Game of Thrones. Foxtel also dreams of expanding its kingdom, but beyond its existing loyal subjects who is going to pay the gold price for Game of Thrones? It's safe to assume that most fans have so far watched either via iTunes/Quickflix or via the BitTorrent channel. Would either clan willingly start paying their taxes to Foxtel at this point?

Paying for a Foxtel subscription just to watch Game of Thrones is ludicrous, although HBO and Foxtel have given Australians little choice unless they're prepared to wait. Most of the other programming you get in return is rubbish, but if you can find three or four shows on Foxtel that you'd be prepared to pay for, plus the occasional movie, then it starts to look like better value for money.

The Holy Grail is the ability to pick and choose the channels and shows you pay for, but that’s unlikely to come anytime soon because forcing you to pay for stuff you don't want is the cornerstone of the pay TV business model. Even online-only rivals are likely to stick with this model for now.

Of course, this ignores the fact that all this content is available via BitTorrent for free, but the last few years have proven that people are prepared to pay for content if they feel they're getting a good deal and things aren’t too complicated. Services like iTunes and Spotify make it easier to pay for content than to steal it. Foxtel Play is a step in the right direction, but the underlying package-based pricing model rubs many people the wrong way.

So how will it end? It's likely that this week's Game of Thrones series return will once again break both pay TV audience records and piracy records. In the days to come both sides will claim victory but it's hard to assess the battlefield when Foxtel, Apple and Quickflix are less than forthcoming regarding the strength of their forces and illegal download stats are rubbery. The closest I can get to a solid statistic is that last season around 20 per cent of Quickflix's pay-per-episode streaming TV traffic came from Game of Thrones. It will be hard to judge exactly what those customers do this season.

The real test of Foxtel's Game of Thrones strategy will be whether Freudenstein's dream of extra subscribers becomes a reality. Only time will tell if fans will pay their debts. Succeed or fail, Australia's content industry will be watching Foxtel closely to learn the lessons from its iron grip on the iron throne.

Foxtel is part-owned by News Corp, publisher of Business Spectator.

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