Audiences are fracturing, but the apparatus that made HBO’s megahit isn’t going away.
You, a normal person, are interested in discussing the finale of Game of Thrones. Bless you.
But for people who pay attention to the media business, the question isn’t Bran vs. Sansa: It’s, “Will there be another Game of Thrones?”
Spoiler: Of course there will be. We just can’t tell you what it will be, or what network it will appear on. Because that’s the nature of giant TV hits.
This is a familiar story to HBO programming head Casey Bloys, who was working at the network after HBO’s last giant TV hits — The Sopranos and Sex in the City — and heard similar questions.
When HBO aired GoT’s first episode, “Winter Is Coming,” in April 2011, a swords-and-sorcery show about an incestuous brother and sister who cripple a young boy did not seem like the answer.
“When the show came out, there was some hand-wringing from TV critics and writers — does a fantasy show feel like HBO?” Bloys says. “The thing you learn about being here this long is that you just have to get into the business of people you trust and follow your vision.”
But the “will there be another GoT?” question isn’t just about whether HBO can find another GoT. It’s whether anyone can find another GoT.
There is an argument, made by many people I read, talk to, listen to, that Sunday night’s show means the end of an era, because we now live in an on-demand, streaming world where everyone watches different things at different times.
That last part is true, and it definitely applies to lots of media consumption. It’s easier than ever to insert yourself into bubbles that make you oblivious to what other people are reading, listening to, and watching. (This is also not a bad thing.)
But here are the factors that helped Game of Thrones become a hit that reaches tens of millions of people a week:
- Weekly distribution, spread out over the course of eight years, on a network that reaches 150 million homes worldwide;
- A human impulse to participate in things other humans are participating in;
- A Twitter and Facebook ecosystem that makes it easy for people who aren’t paying attention to Game of Thrones to learn that lots of other people are paying attention to Game of Thrones;
- A media ecosystem that very much wants to exploit anything that has already become popular (and, not coincidentally, something someone else has already paid for). Which means that everyone from the New York Times to Vox.com to Men’s Health (really) has a thriving business in Games of Thrones content and a vested interested in keeping that business going.
I did not know that Men’s Health had extensive Game of Thrones coverage but I am not surprised. We will miss you, GOT. Sincerely, all media outlets. pic.twitter.com/UqsubdrdgQ
— Peter Kafka (@pkafka) May 13, 2019
None of those things came to an end on Sunday night. So there’s no reason to think those things won’t concoct another Game of Thrones … someday.
Another argument for a future Game of Thrones: There are a lot of people spending a lot of money trying to create another Game of Thrones.
Start with HBO, which is the main reason AT&T spent $85 billion to buy Time Warner. Game of Thrones was the engine powering HBO. You can see the pressure the company faces to replace this with a casual look.
See, for instance, HBO’s trailer for Watchmen, a show produced by Lost alumni, with built-in marketing hooks since it features characters from a hit graphic novel (and a mediocre feature film).
Or maybe you’d like to watch a moody, subtle dramedy about a Murdoch-like media mogul and his miserable, scheming family?
And here’s an email HBO sent me last week, helpfully suggesting that Game of Thrones fans should “make Succession your next binge” (I’m a big Succession fan, too, but so far it has featured zero dragons and beheadings, and if there was brief nudity I missed it.)
More practically, HBO has already ramped up its output schedule — a decision made before AT&T officially purchased HBO last summer, but made with its new owner’s appetite for more content in mind — which accounts for the couple dozen shows it has in production for this year and 2020. HBO is also working on at least one Game of Thrones spinoff: a prequel starring Naomi Watts, which “chronicles the world’s descent from the golden Age of Heroes into its darkest hour.”
Now add to the mix all of the HBO competitors in conventional TV, from NBC to Showtime to AMC — all of whom are still looking to find hits, as they always have, and still occasionally do. They may not have HBO’s clout or the money new entrants like Netflix have, but they do have a giant distribution apparatus, which is incredibly valuable. It also means they don’t have to rely on enormous spectacle to have enormous hits: There are zero dragons in This is Us or The Big Bang Theory.
Then add the streamers, who are all interested in finding Very Big Audiences for their shows.
Netflix made its streaming debut in 2013, after announcing that it was spending $100 million on House of Cards, a very HBO-style show. Now it spends billions a year on original programming. Amazon, which started off making niche, small-budget shows like Transparent for its streaming service, has changed course and now wants epic series of its own, including a very expensive Lord of the Rings prequel. We don’t know what Apple is making for its TV service, exactly, except that it is employing people like Steven Spielberg, Reese Witherspoon, and Oprah Winfrey — none of whom works on the cheap.
But wait! Netflix dumps all the episodes of its shows at once, and that’s the kind of strategy that would make it hard for the next Game of Thrones to build buzz and an audience week by week — and to focus all of our attention on an event like Sunday’s finale, right?
Yes. On the other hand, per Netflix’s own selective boasting, the service can get huge numbers of people to watch a show or movie in a fairly short timespan, like a month or less. Last year, for instance, it said that 45 million households had watched Sandra Bullock’s Bird Box in the first week the movie was out.
So Netflix is already getting large audiences to watch the same thing — if not exactly at the same time. And while Netflix executives repeatedly point to binge viewing as an intrinsic feature for the streaming service, there’s no reason it has to stick with that reasoning forever, or for everything.
Note that Netflix has already played around with different release schedules for some of its programming, like weekly releases for some of its talk shows (as well as episodes of its Explained series, made by my Vox colleagues).
We don’t know what Apple’s plans are, but lots of other streamers, like Hulu and Amazon, seem happy to release some shows in batches, and some on a weekly basis. None of this stuff is set in stone, and if someone thinks releasing a show at 9 pm ET on Sundays will help it gain eyeballs and buzz, they’re going to do it.
In fact, the best argument for “will there be another Game of Thrones?” is the fact that so many people are trying to make another Game of Thrones.
“There are so many choices and so many interesting shows. Across the board, for the industry, there’s a challenge to building audience, because there’s so much to watch,” says HBO’s Bloys. “When there’s 500 shows, give or take, the public’s attention and interest is just getting sapped across the board.”
Bloys’s job is to figure out how to fix that. The good news for you, the normal person who likes to watch good TV shows? It’s not your job. The better news: There’s a lot of people who want your time. Enjoy the attention.
Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.
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