Game of Thrones is Shaping the New Way TV is Made and Watched
Possible spoilers ahead!
Few television series have captured the nation's attention and imagination like “Game of Thrones." Other shows have been as complex (like “Lost" or “Westworld") and other shows have had rabid yet broad fandoms (think about the “The Sopranos" and “Breaking Bad"). But rare is the show that has been both.
Much press has been given to equating the end of “Game of Thrones" and the end of “Marvel's Avengers," because neither has much else it compare to. Both have been cultural touchstones throughout the decade, both are multifaceted ensemble mysteries waiting to be revealed, both are ending nearly simultaneously, both are leaving a legacy of changing the media. And both elicit deep, honest emotion and connection from their fans. Fates of GoT Starks and Avengers Starks alike come like deaths in the family.
In this era of streaming and binging and social media that “Game of Thrones" grew up in, what does that mean for shows to follow in the future? How has “Game of Thrones" changed the way we watch TV?
The long ago world of 2011
When “Game of Thrones" premiered on April 17, 2011, the media world was a different place. Netflix had only begun streaming video three years prior and was still two years from creating its first original series, “House of Cards." HBO Go (the app for subscribers) was only a year old and HBO Now (the app for non-subscribers) was three years away. Twitter had half the users it does today. And the number of scripted shows on TV was waiting to balloon by 86 percent, from 266 in 2011 to 495 in 2018. On that date, the GoT pilot garnered just 2.22 million viewers, 10 million fewer than watch now.
— Game of Thrones (@GameOfThrones) April 18, 2011
The show started with a core audience made up of fans of George R. R. Martin's “A Song of Ice and Fire" books and fantasy enthusiasts. But word of mouth spread and technology changed until GoT was the mammoth it is today. And along the way, the show changed how television was made, and how we watched it.
Raising the stakes
Stakes in Westeros were set early and violently. Sure, shows have killed off major characters before. “Lost" was the gold standard, showing us no one was safe by offing Boone in the first season, his sister Shannon the next, beloved Charlie in season three and many more along the way.
But “Game of Thrones" upped the ante, making sure we knew early and often anyone was at risk. The show sacrificed the honorable Ned Stark, lovable Hodor, divisive King Joffrey, young Shireen Baratheon and a hundred more in succeeding seasons — not to mention Robb Stark and a score of others at the Red Wedding. The show even slayed star Jon Snow, launching his fate as the biggest off-season mystery since “Who Shot J.R.?," before resurrecting him. And that's not even counting all of the of main characters we've seen die this season.
The series wanted to keep viewers on their toes and create insecurity, keeping riveted fans coming back. It's a formula any show of “GoT's" expanse will find necessary to follow in the future. Thanks to “Game of Thrones," any show wishing to take up its mantle must now give its audience this kind of stake, that no one is safe. Anything can happen. And we'll be watching for it.
George R.R. Martin's source material brought in an existing audience, but deviated from the books when needed and then even surpassed them. Even diehards of the book series don't know what will happen next. It's a lesson adapted shows like “The Handmaid's Tale," “The Vampire Diaries" and “True Blood" had to learn, as will their successors.
But it's not just the “Game of Thrones" story that changed television, obviously. It's the size and scope and scale of the production that is what's never been seen in a multi-season series.
Before, such grandiosity wasn't commonplace, even on subscription television. It was usually reserved for big-budget miniseries and limited television events. It was never purvey of eight seasons of episodic television. When GoT debuted, it had a modest budget of $5 million per episode. But as the final season comes to a close, episodes are running north of a previously unheard-of $15 million.
Now, if a network or service wishes to create a world on the scale of Westeros, the budgets must follow. Every week must feel like a theatrical release.
That used to be reserved just for HBO and that's clearly no longer the case. Netflix and Amazon and now even the broadcast networks and the big cable networks like an FX, TNT are doing it. They're all realizing they have to raise their game with things that feel more epic and with greater scope to compete. – Gary Newman, former co-chair of Fox Television Group
Game of Thrones reinvented what's possible on television, from its graphic violence and blatant sexuality to its massive production values and intertwining storylines, which any new low-concept series must follow.
Pulling in viewers
And HBO has been rewarded. There are about 120 million television households in the U.S., but just 36.5 million have the service, with an additional 5 million on the standalone app HBO Now. That number is sure to jump because HBO reported a record number of new subscribers to the service in the week leading up to the season 8 premiere.
But even with just a third of households connected to HBO, “Game of Thrones'" highest-rated episode to date garnered 17.8 million viewers on all platforms, with 12.2 of those watching traditional television.
Compare that to the also-ending “Big Bang Theory's" highest ever episode rating, 20.44 million, on a platform available on every set. Even the highest-rated “The Walking Dead" episode, a channel served to nearly all cable subscribers, brought in 17.3 million viewers. And that's not even counting the estimated 51 percent of Americans who share a password with friends on streaming services like HBO Go and HBO Now.
The ball is in the court of other day-and-date content producers like Showtime, FX, TNT and the traditional Big Four networks to give us the level of product “Game of Thrones" has conditioned us to now require. Services like Netflix, Amazon Video and Hulu, as well as start-ups like Disney+, Apple TV+ and CBS All Access will also have to chase the buzz.
Spend the money, make the production theatrical, write a compelling story with risk, expect high-level acting, market correctly and serve the fans, and you might have your next signature series. You can already see this influence everywhere on TV, from Amazon's “Man In The High Castle" and Netflix's “The OA" to FX's “Legion" and even HBO's own “Westworld".
But “Game of Thrones" hasn't just changed how television is made and how it's presented and served to us, it's changed how we watch television itself. Some of the best shows on television are binged in a day or two, rarely on the date they come out.
Nielsen ratings are no longer compiled just as immediate “overnights." Shows now are primarily measured in Live+3 and Live+7, how many people watch the show in the first three days or first week, respectively. We live in a non-live, time-shifted world.
Because of the shocking nature of the stories, the mysteries to unravel, the predictions to be made and the fates of favorite characters hanging in the balance, “Game of Thrones" has become something scarce in TV in the 2010s — a show that must be consumed live, watched when it airs, for fear of missing out, being spoiled or, worst of all, left out of the conversation.
“Game of Thrones," for most fans, must be watched live. It engenders a primal need to pick up the phone the moment the show ends and react and rehash with friends. A necessity to have an immediate hot take at the proverbial watercooler at work the next morning. A desire to watch the episode again right away as to be sure nothing was missed. A rush to hop on the internet to share memes and read embargoed recaps. It's a collective viewing experience rare in our era outside of sports and breaking news. Fans all over the U.S. even take that collectivity literally, hosting weekly GoT parties or gathering for massive show watches at bars, music clubs and comic book stores.
— Alan Ly (@theAlanLy) April 29, 2019
In the past, there was no choice. “The Thornbirds" or that episode of “Ellen" or the series finale of “Cheers" were true live event television, not only because we didn't have other ways to watch, but because it was the national conversation. That's what “Game of Thrones" is.
In some ways, it's a live sporting event happening in real time. And moving forward, this is the kind of television we will seek out to fill the vacuum left behind. The shows that enrapture us to the point where we must watch live, must be first to know, must discuss immediately afterward and must ingest with America together, even if we're watching on our phones.
And that discussion on social media is also an ingredient in how “Game of Thrones" changed how we watch television. Never has the two-screen experience been more overwhelming and influential than alongside “Game of Thrones." The recent “The Long Night" episode elicited more Twitter activity than any other episode of scripted television in history, producing 7.8 million unique tweets (sure to be bested by the finale).
The sheer number of viewers watching live has eliminated the need for “spoiler alerts" on social media, and opened the door for immediate reactions all over the internet and live episode tweeting from outlets from Buzzfeed to TV Guide. Recaps and reviews are immediately posted so fans can dive in and extend the viewing experience as long as possible.
The first four episodes of the final season alone reaped 52 million tweets, without much marketing push from HBO. It's been fan-driven and spread by social word-of-mouth. Any show we collectively fall in love with will be required to have this demand for us to connect with our friends in the room and our fellow fans around the world in real time.
A new playbook
The numbers speak for themselves. In the years since the premiere in 2011, HBO increased subscriptions by 51 percent and revenue 47 percent. If other outlets want to find their next “Game of Thrones," they'll need to follow the HBO playbook, then innovate on top of it. They must learn how GoT changed how we watch TV, and change it again. Because as HBO learned, when “Game of Thrones" ends each season, cancellations skyrocket, with the biggest exodus yet to come.
The level of excitement I have at being able to cancel HBO forever after Game of Thrones is finally over. pic.twitter.com/VdZJlIReJf
— Just Justin (@JustinCentric) April 29, 2019
The series came of age alongside cord-cutting, streaming services, digital devices and binge-watching. It changed how we watch TV because it adapted and it created a product that required a shift in process. It allowed HBO to fight back against streaming services because of its inherent advantages.
The quality of original programming on Netflix and Amazon can't be denied, but they will never create a collective viewing experience with their watch-at-your-convenience, binge-all-day platform. Even Hulu, releasing programming weekly, still makes shows available at 12:01 in the morning, eliminating the need for the entire nation to be on the couch at nine o'clock.
Will that be an advantage for services that day-and-time like CBS All-Access? Will it cause a change at Netflix or Hulu? What will Disney and Apple do? Or will the next must-watch game-changer to follow in GoT's steps come from Showtime or USA or even CBS?
So, what's next after the GoT finale? Who will take up the throne? Will it be Amazon Video's upcoming $200 million “Lord of the Rings" series, FX's “Y," Apple's big-budget fantasy drama “See," season three of HBO's own “Westworld" or even the “Game of Thrones" 5,000-years-before-Daenerys prequel?
Only the collective public knows for sure, but it will be dripping with the DNA of how GoT changed how we watch television.