Why is there so much hype about Game of Thrones?

From budget battles to battle budgets, the fantasy epic has transformed television

The trailer for the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones. Video: HBO

 

Game of Thrones, a quick recap: Some years ago there was this Mad King called Aerys who ruled from the Iron Throne, then someone slept with someone else’s sister, there was swordplay, spiritualism and a wedding that didn’t go so well, and now the army of the dead are crashing through the Wall and heading south.

If you’ve never seen it, you can pretty much pick it up from there.

Why is there so much hype about a single television show? The answer isn’t that Game of Thrones brings excellent, quotable entertainment laden with shock character deaths to millions – thanks to the BBC’s Line of Duty, it’s not even the only show filmed in Belfast to do all this.

The answer is that throughout its nine-year existence, Game of Thrones has changed the industry from which it came. Alongside the ascent of Netflix, it defines the television culture of this decade.

In 2019, thanks to its influence, few eyebrows are raised by an American series with a per-episode budget of $6 million

The fantasy-politics-epic series, created by David Benioff and Dan Weiss from the books by George RR Martin, first aired in 2011 and its final run of six episodes (four of which run well over the hour mark) begins next Sunday, or Monday (Sky at 2am) in this time zone.

Before Netflix had ever launched a self-commissioned series, the makers of Game of Thrones were exemplifying what has become the default principle of modern TV storytelling: big budgets bring big payoffs.

In 2019, thanks to its influence, few eyebrows are raised by an American series with a per-episode budget of $6 million (€5.3 million). This was, roughly, the price tag for a first-season episode of the show, commissioned by premium cable US network HBO.

Conference call

Then, ahead of a second-season “battle” episode that broadcast in 2012, season two’s Blackwater, Benioff and Weiss had what they described to GQ as a “really intense conference call with the HBO brass” to try and wangle a budget that would pay for a full-sized replica of a 14th-century battleship, among other complications.

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“So, what are you guys talking about, an extra $500,000?” Benioff paraphrased executives. The producers were actually looking for another $2.5 million. They got $2 million. In 2012, that was “a lot of money in TV”.

It paid off. GQ was by no means an outlier when it wrote up the $8 million result as “the year’s best television episode” and a “masterpiece”. Steep annual inflation had been set in train. According to Variety, the average per-episode budget for the forthcoming eighth season was $15 million.

Game of Thrones mugs on sale in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which doubles as King’s Landing in the show. Photograph: Denis Lovrovic/AFP
Game of Thrones mugs on sale in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which doubles as King’s Landing in the show. Photograph: Denis Lovrovic/AFP

Viewing figures have swollen over that time too – deservedly so, for the series has never been shy of writing, directing, acting and all-round production talent. Indeed, some viewers would probably be happy enough watching Tyrion trading weary low-budget barbs with imperious Cersei, while brother Jaime is off being morally complex in a field.

More precisely, the point proved isn’t just that money talks, it’s that fans do.

Game of Thrones began its TV life with a pre-existing fanbase from Martin’s books and took it from there. From Netflix (its former Marvel ventures) to the future Disney+ service (more Marvel) to Amazon Prime (its big bet on a Lord of the Rings series) to HBO itself (its planned Thrones spin-offs), the common approach is to take a fandom and “super-serve” it.

The law of entertainment economics says the safest path to a hit is to buy into a niche, fuel it with cash and watch it explode.

A too-long line of contenders for the subscription video-on-demand throne are now pouring billions into what they hope will be content gold. And in a convenient echo of the show’s constant powerplay, their alliances have twisted and shifted dramatically since 2011.

Game of Thrones: the Battle of the Bastards. Photograph: HBO
Game of Thrones: the Battle of the Bastards. Photograph: HBO

Notably, one-time media business Night King Rupert Murdoch tried and failed to buy HBO’s parent Time Warner in 2014 for some $80 billion through his company 21st Century Fox, which has since been sold to Disney. Then in 2016, telecoms giant AT&T bid $85.4 billion for Time Warner – now renamed Warner Media – in a deal completed just last year.

Sky subplot

In the European subplot, meanwhile, Thrones rights-holder Sky has gone from having Murdoch’s Fox as its largest shareholder to being majority-owned by US cable group Comcast.

Should they feel the urge, Sky and Now TV customers can also binge on 'every bloody episode' from the first seven seasons

Sky’s treatment of Game of Thrones has also evolved. Back in 2011, Sky had only just set up its subscriber-only channel Sky Atlantic as a home for Thrones and other shows acquired under a since-extended deal with HBO. The idea was to persuade non-pirates to sign up to its full pay-TV satellite package.

As time went on, the impact of Netflix and its ilk became so undeniable (139 million subscribers worldwide at the last count versus just 25 million in early 2011), Sky had to change strategy. It now uses Thrones to flog Now TV, its standalone “pay-lite” service. Go to Now TV’s Irish home page and you will find it advertising “the ultimate Game of Thrones pass” for a 50 per cent discount to the normal price.

Should they feel the urge, Sky and Now TV customers can also binge on “every bloody episode” from the first seven seasons, which Sky executive Zai Bennett noted recently would take 2½ days to do back-to-back. “You would look fine after it,” he promised. “Absolutely fine.”

The line between hype-allergy and total obsession is surprisingly easy to cross.

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