Note: This article is an offshoot of Variety Intelligence Platform’s special report “The New Face of Content Piracy,” available exclusively to VIP+ subscribers.
It’s easy to assume that what’s driving illegal consumption of film and TV is as simple as viewers wanting to watch popular titles without paying for them. Indeed, that was essentially the case for film in 2022, with the year’s highest-grossing titles largely overlapping with the most pirated films, according to exclusive data piracy-focused research firm Muso shared with Variety Intelligence Platform.
Films’ ease of accessibility on streaming also played a notable, albeit smaller, role. The most pirated film of 2022, Marvel’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” has only been available to stream in the U.S. thus far via Starz, whose domestic subscriber base is a fraction of the size of platforms like Disney+ and Netflix. Piracy of the film therefore remained elevated throughout the year.
But Muso data shows a surprising divide between the most legally streamed TV shows and the most pirated series of 2022 in the U.S. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon” claimed the top spot on the latter list, inheriting a title its predecessor held throughout its run, while missing out on the most-streamed shows as measured by Nielsen.
Meanwhile, only one title among Nielsen’s top 15 original programs, Amazon’s mammoth “Lord of the Rings” adaptation “The Rings of Power,” ranked as one of the year’s most pirated shows as well. Conspicuously absent from this list was the biggest TV hit of 2022, Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” or indeed any of the Netflix series, such as “Ozark” and “Wednesday,” that dominated Nielsen’s streaming ratings charts all year.
This may be because the primary method of choice for Netflix piracy is password sharing, rather than illegal streams or downloads. Muso’s data measured activity across a range of piracy sites, including illegal streaming, torrent, web download and stream-ripping platforms, meaning content viewed through credential sharing would not register. One wonders what effect Netflix’s imminent password-sharing crackdown will have on 2023’s most-pirated list.
Most of the titles measured by Muso are shows unavailable through saturated platforms like Netflix (though the Marvel series “Moon Knight,” which streams on Disney+, made the list as well). “Running Man,” which claimed a 12 percent share of piracy demand (i.e. illicit streams, downloads and the like) among the top 10 titles, is a South Korean variety show that is only available in the U.S. on niche streamers Kocowa and Viki.
Of the other six most pirated shows, one was the latest season of Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty,” which has yet to arrive on SVOD platforms, while the remaining five were Japanese anime titles, including the no. 2 show “Chainsaw Man,” which was the most-pirated series in the U.S. for Q4.
This may be a case of old habits dying hard. Anime series were, for many years, difficult to watch legally in the U.S., though this has changed recently as the genre has gained more mainstream appeal stateside; three of the top pirated titles, “Bleach,” “SPY x FAMILY” and “The Rising of the Shield Hero,” are all available on Hulu.
Piracy for the latter two series may also be due to the delay between the shows’ broadcasts in Japan and their Hulu debuts, with anime fans wanting to catch the latest episodes as soon as possible. Piracy spikes for both “SPY x FAMILY” and “Shield Hero” coincide with their Japanese broadcast dates, per Muso data.
Legal means are available for American viewers to watch these shows more quickly; the niche streaming service Crunchyroll features subtitled anime episodes within hours of their debuts in Japan. But it’s clear that there is an opportunity for distributors to blunt piracy by making the shows accessible to a wider audience as soon as possible.
While streaming has not eliminated TV piracy — indeed, the proliferation of subscription platforms and exclusive content has fueled a steady rise since 2020 — the example of Netflix shows that scale for a platform’s user base can at least somewhat deter it. The major streaming players have counted on in-demand content to build such scale, but it’s worth considering if this dynamic can work in reverse.
Read more of VIP+'s piracy coverage:
• The most pirated film titles of 2022
• Global content piracy soared 18% in 2022
• Survey results: How many are actually pirating content?
• Plus, dive into the original expansive special report ...