Exciting news for people who love Sean Bean!* HBO has announced that a significant quantity of its exclusive content will be available to UK customers long before international DVD and Blu-ray release dates arrive.

“Why, how, who, what?” I can hear you excitedly scramble, as you emerge blinking from the scale reproduction of Westeros built behind your sofa, but it’s true. Winter is actually coming, and to celebrate UK residents can now rent individual episodes or entire series of Game of Thrones (and other, not nearly as interesting shows), from Tesco owned UK video on demand supplier Blinkbox.

It’s a shrewd move that will see HBO standing on much more comfortable international ground over the next 12 months. In June 2012, Game Of Thrones was reported by website torrent freak to be the most pirated show in the world for that season, with over 4 million illegal downloads per episode, primarily internationally. Partly as a result of frustration at not being able to access the content, a fan-run website based on a popular Futurama meme – takemymoneyHBO.com – sprang up to try and convince the broadcaster to offer a standalone online version of its service.

That’s an impossibility, as Ryan Lawler at Techcrunch so correctly pointed out. The financial juggling required to maintain lucrative US distribution deals, however, does no good when it comes to appeasing a massive international audience who, faced with a show they know they enjoy but will need to wait months to see, pop online and nick it instead. HBO’s response is a smart one.

The UK video on demand market

Entering into a UK distribution deal with a video on demand supplier such as Blinkbox will allow UK customers and fans to watch the show significantly sooner than would otherwise be possible. Series 1 of Game of Thrones was released on DVD only in March of this year, and with series two finishing its broadcast shortly after, it’s unlikely a physical product release will come any time soon. When demands for immediacy of access go unmet, piracy rises, and this attempt to cater to hard-core fans who do not want to wait until 2013 will no doubt go some distance towards reducing illegal acquisition of the show.

It’s also a fascinating development for anyone with an interest in video on demand services in the UK. The Ultraviolet initiative (which will on completion act as an online storage locker for digital video content purchased from a wide range of retailers) is currently being outpaced by the Blinkbox offering, with major retailer Tesco allowing consumers who buy any of a selection of DVD or Blu-rays to also add a digital copy of the content to their Blinkbox account, for watching on a number of connected devices.

It is unlikely that Ultraviolet will launch before 2013. After launch, it needs to be explained to consumers, and widespread take-up of the service is unlikely to occur before 2014. Should Blinkbox manage to retain exclusive access to premium content like Game of Thrones, as well as providing its own digital video storage locker before that point, it may well become a compelling argument for consumers to stick with Tesco’s proprietary offering rather than engaging with the relatively brand agnostic Ultraviolet initiative, when it launches.

This is the last thing the industry needs – the main attraction of the Ultraviolet marker is that it finally gives consumers a unified storage depot for digital video, making interaction and engagement with the content more feasible and realistic. Introducing content exclusive to one storage locker or another will severely dilute the ultimate benefit provided to the industry by either.

If you find this kind of thing edge-of-your-seat gripping (and lets be honest, you should), there’s loads more in-depth analysis, market size discussion and consumer research to boot in the comprehensive Mintel Video on Demand 2012 report or follow me on Twitter here.

* So, basically, everyone