FITCHBURG -- As the HBO TV series "Game of Thrones" begins its fourth season tonight, local fans scramble to tune in to a program notorious for attracting illegal downloads.
The file-sharing blog TorrentFreak listed "Game of Thrones" as the most pirated TV show of both 2012 and 2013. International media security and anti-piracy firm Irdeto came to the same conclusion, tracking 1.6 million illegal downloads of the show in a four-week period during January and February.
Fans say that's to be expected on a premium-channel show that doesn't sell episodes on disc or legal downloads until nearly a year later. Season three originally aired between March 31 and June 9, 2013, but the episodes didn't go on sale until Feb. 17.
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That doesn't appear to scare HBO. The Guardian quoted Jeff Bewkes, CEO of HBO's parent company, Time Warner, as saying "Game of Thrones" piracy has been "better than an Emmy" for generating publicity and signing up new HBO subscribers, while sales of the DVD, Blu-Ray and legal downloads are still strong.
The show has picked up a steady stream of awards and award nominations, from a Golden Globe and multiple Emmy awards to a Media Access Award for its portrayal of characters with disabilities.
"I watch it on my computer. I feel like a lot of people watch it on their computers," said Dylan Crowley, 25, of Leominster, who is also reading the novels on which the series is based. "There's the HBO Go online streaming app, if you have an HBO account. And if you don't, there's other ways to get it."
Dimitri Mercado, 20, of Fitchburg, said he didn't like the first few episodes but got swept up in it quickly and ended up watching the first season in an all-night binge.
"The show is so good, it's amazing," he said. "My girlfriend's brother had it on his computer, I don't know how he got it, and he was like, 'Here, have it.'"
The plot centers on a group of noble families maneuvering for the crown of the fictional continent of Westeros, using warfare, deception, murder and alliances sealed with loveless marriages.
"It's an HBO show, there's the extra element -- graphic violence and graphic nudity -- so that's enticing to some people when it comes to television," said Crowley. "You've got that, but you've also got this fantastic story and these characters that you can fall in love with."
The show has few clear heroes and villains, as most of the characters are morally ambiguous and become corrupted or redeemed over the course of the plot. The series is famous for breaking traditional story arcs and killing and maiming major characters. Any character can die at any time, including the children, which keeps viewers on edge.
Joining the cast this season is Chilian actor Pedro Pascal as Oberyn Martell, a prince from a southern kingdom who wants revenge for his murdered sister who died nearly two decades ago at the hands of the Lannisters, who currently control the throne. He is known for being charming, ruthlessly violent and openly bisexual.
Crowley thinks Martell will be a fan favorite, but John Pfeiffer, 20, of Gardner, thinks viewer reception will be mixed.
"He has that potential to be that one character that everyone loves, but also the potential to turn into someone to hate," said Pfeiffer, who has read all the books and has HBO at home. He said Martell's willingness to use brutal violence could turn some fans off.
"I love the books better than the show, but I love the show," said Pfeiffer. He said the books provide more background information on the characters and has a much more complex plot.
He's a fan of the history of the renaissance and dark ages, and thinks the show's unflattering portrayal of knights is a good reality check for viewers.
"Knights were just as bad as everyone else," he said. "Everyone thinks, 'Oh, a knight wears shining armor and he's going to defend the maiden. No, knights just served the king, or served whoever paid them."
He said people who haven't seen the previous seasons shouldn't have trouble getting engaged.
"This is one of those shows you can come in any time, said Pfeiffer. "Each season is so different than the last one. Even if you don't know too much about the last season, I feel you can come in and feel caught up."
"The show itself is a big twist after another, sort of like the medieval version of 'The Walking Dead,'" said Shamus Down, 29, who recently moved to Greenfield from Fitchburg. He likes the sprawling, continent-wide plot and what he sees as a realistic portrayal of medieval times.
Crowley said while the swords and sorcery aspects of the show appeal to a nerdy audience, he credits the show's bold visuals and sharp dialogue for attracting a mainstream following.
He watched the show at home, and his mother got caught up in it as well after seeing it over his shoulder.
"She never intended to; it just kind of happened," said Crowley. He said she became extremely frustrated when season three ended and she had to wait months for the story to pick up again.
Pfeiffer said knowing the future plot from the books, fans of the show should avoid adopting favorite characters in the coming years because many of them are doomed.
"Be attached to the show, not the main characters," he said. "There is no such thing as a main character in 'Game of Thrones.' There are only minor characters, or characters that are recurring."
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