Not everyone was able to stream the opening episode of Game of Thrones’ seventh season. (HBO)
Winter was coming with the first episode of the new Game of Thrones series this week, but the real freeze was a technical one.
Many fans across the world were unable to watch the much anticipated season opener using legal streaming services, such as Foxtel Now in Australia.
Foxtel issued a statement on Monday saying the problem was due to “technical glitches around the world”.
This technical glitch is extremely concerning, not just for fans of Game of Thrones but for the future of streaming video of major events and programming.
The focus on streaming
It was only last month that Foxtel launched its new logo and rebranded its Foxtel Play streaming service as Foxtel Now.
The company’s announcement of the new service promised Game of Thrones fans — and those of other programs — that they could now enjoy their favourite shows in high definition for as little as $15 per month.
Previously, the only way to access Game of Thrones legally in Australia was via Foxtel’s prohibitively expensive pay-TV offerings.
This restricted access had seen Australians become some of the world’s leaders in illegally downloading previous seasons of Game of Thrones.
Even with the cheaper access via Foxtel Now, a Finder.com.au survey showed that more than 30 per cent of people said they would be illegally downloading the new season.
The glitch this week will create headaches for Foxtel, and raises questions over the viability of its cheaper streaming alternative to its premium pay-TV service.
Many Australians vented their frustration on social media via the hashtag #FoxtelFail and on Foxel’s community board.
@katieanneevans: “All excited to watch @GameOfThrones S7 and now @Foxtel GoPlayNow (whatever it’s called these days) not working!”
@JezDrake: “Cmon @Foxtel your go service is no go on the most important got night of the year! #GameofThrones7”
@alldaymena: “Here’s to #foxtelnow. Failing spectacularly on the one night anyone would deign using it.”
But while Australians targeted their anger at Foxtel, the glitch was global.
A global problem
In addition to Australia, fans in the United States, Latin America and India also faced the same frustrating technical issues.
Hotstar, an Indian online streaming service, had been promoting an “Hours Before Torrents” promise.
Its advertising used the phrases “Torrent Morghulis” and that “torrents must die”, both based on popular Game of Thrones phrases.
Unfortunately the creative marketing campaign will now be laughed at as torrents of the premiere program were reportedly available illegally 45 minutes before the episode was available on Hotstar.
@reelsubham: “#TorrentsMorghulis Well done @hotstartweets But torrents will never die”
An unexpected surge
Foxtel has redirected the blame for the technical glitch towards both its own customers — thanks to a 40 per cent surge in new subscriptions in the 48 hours before episode one’s screening time — and to Game of Thrones’ US production company HBO.
Level 3 Communications is HBO’s partner in delivering its HBO Go streaming service.
Diane Tryneski, chief digital officer at HBO, had said ahead of the season premiere that Level 3 was pivotal in its “ability to stream Game of Thrones and other HBO programming to our customers”.
Laurinda Pang, Level 3’s regional president for North America and Asia Pacific, added that with more viewers and devices accessing HBO GO content, “the importance of relying on a network optimised for media delivery cannot be overstated”.
But it appears that the anticipated numbers of people simultaneously accessing the Game of Thrones opening episode were underestimated.
This is a situation to which Australians can relate — a similar congestion-based crash contributed to last year’s census debacle.
It is hard to acknowledge that viewer estimates for this popular series could be so wrong, given its ratings success at the end of series six in 2016.
Global streaming future
But this latest technical glitch raises some bigger questions.
There is continual evidence in the US and Australia that audiences are changing their viewing behaviours.
There is a global shift from traditional television broadcast to online services, streaming and video-on-demand services. So can these services handle the future loads that are anticipated?
This is not just in reference to pre-recorded content such as Game of Thrones, but also to live content in which technical issues, buffering and low quality video will impact the viewing experience.
There was evidence of these types of issues last year with the Rio Olympic Games streaming content.
Streaming video will only continue to grow with predictions it will be 82 per cent of all consumer internet traffic by 2021.
The growth of video will not just be via IP data, but also mobile.
It’s estimated that almost 80 per cent of global mobile data will be video by 2021.
What’s bigger than Game of Thrones?
With this in mind, could the internet handle major events such as a Super Bowl television audience?
Last year its TV audience was more than 111 million in the US alone — far more than the 16 million reported to have watched the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
Even adding the Australian and UK figures of 1.5 million and 2.8 million respectively, it was far from a Super Bowl TV audience.
The Super Bowl online audience question was presented to a panel of experts in the US in May this year, with some interesting responses.
The experts’ consensus was that a live stream of the event over the internet to match the regular TV audience figure would be possible, but not until about 2023.
Marc C-Scott is a lecturer in screen media at Victoria University.
Originally published in The Conversation