Cover Story 58: Game of Thrones

01
Jul

WATCH THE THRONES

As HBO’s megahit ‘Game of Thrones’ launches its seventh season this month, it’s already conquered ratings and awards shows. Now it’s challenging (and changing) how we watch TV.

Sunday nights have long been the night that cable TV comes give us its best. Sunday night has been the home of “Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and “Homeland” — all of the pillars of the premium television

But you have to admit, Sunday nights have a little bit of a different feeling when “Game of Thrones” is on.

This isn’t because of all the eye-popping action that happens on HBO’s fantastical smash hit — which is overflowing with violence and drenched in sex and nudity. It’s more about what happens on the other side of the TV screen. “Game of Thrones” is appointment TV in a time when TV literally requires no appointments.

But if you don’t want your Monday morning spoiled (or heck, even your Sunday night social media feed), you can’t really miss “Game of the Thrones” when it’s first run on HBO. We watch in groups. We watch with that one special person. We watch with our friends online. Or we watch in solitude. Such is life when you’re in the middle of a full-blown TV phenomenon.

The show returns for Season 7 on July 16, kicking off a shortened seven-episode run before it recollects itself to go out with a bang in Season 8, presumably next year.

And you should be ready for the biggest “Game of the Thrones” hype yet, because as GoT returns for its seventh season, it has accomplished the thing that is coincidentally the central-most theme on the show — it has gathered all the power.

Let’s just think about some of the things that happened since “Game of Thrones” was last on our TV-watching devices: It won nine Emmys last September, including a trifecta of best drama series, outstanding writing and outstanding directing. The show’s Season 6 finale was its most-watched episode of all-time, meaning it’s hitting both its critical and commercial peak at the same time.

It already blew past “The Sopranos” as HBO’s most popular show of all time. That happened in 2014, actually, and “Game of Thrones” has only grown since then.

All this means when “Game of the Thrones” comes back, it’s riding the highest high in television — even if it’s been more than a year since GoT has aired new episodes. Funny thing about that, though, is that our current model of digital consumption that is untethered to schedules means that people have been powering through all the old seasons of “Game of Thrones” these past 12 months. It’s how “Breaking Bad” built all its might before its final two fabulous seasons.

There will, undoubtedly, be thousands of people tuning into the GoT Season 7 premiere that have never watched the show live before. They’ve binged to get caught up and now they’re ready to enjoy fresh new episodes with the rest of us. How thrilled they must be.

 

THE REIGN OF GoT

If you’ve never watched “Game of Thrones” — there are still many people who haven’t, even though those numbers are getting smaller by the month — you’re missing a fantasy show set on the continent of Westeros, where various “houses” battle for supremacy. It’s thrilling, action-packed, violent, sexy and so bold that any character could die at any turn.

“Game of Thrones” is based on the “Song of Ice and Fire” series of fantasy books written by George R.R. Martin, of which “A Game of Thrones” was the first release back in 1996. There hasn’t been a new book since “A Dance With Dragons” in 2011, but the show has certainly helped the massive fan base be more patient for Martin’s next novel.

While there are many people out there waiting to see how the plot points from Season 6 get wrapped up when Season 7 debuts, that’s not exactly the point of this story. People have been talking about that for a year now. And, frankly, by the time you read this, everything could have changed in the series.

What won’t have changed though is this: “Game of Thrones” is challenging the way we watch TV. In its massively successfully sixth season, once all the numbers were counted, “Game of Thrones” averaged 25.1 million viewers per episode, according to Vanity Fair, which is an insane number that includes live viewers, streams on HBO’s Go app, DVR’d episodes and any other way people are watching.

From Vanity Fair: “HBO’s chairman and C.E.O. Richard Plepler chalks up the growing popularity of Thrones to the network’s recent efforts to move into online platforms. ‘These record audiences reflect the options we have built into our business model over the last few years,’ he said. ‘Combining the convenience of HBO on Demand and HBO Go with the subscription flexibility of HBO Now, our programming is being exposed to an ever growing audience.’ ”

That 25.1 million number is insane because, first, we’re talking about a show on a premium cable network. And second, because we’re talking about a show that isn’t exactly easy to watch. Still, that number — which is up 25 percent year over year — is ahead of ratings juggernauts such as “The Big Bang Theory,” “Sunday Night Football” and “The Walking Dead.”

“The Walking Dead” is the only one of those that’s even a comparable type of viewing experience, because it’s on cable and it’s also aimed at a more mature audience. Comparing “Big Bang Theory” to “Game of Thrones” is like comparing a chicken nugget to a perfectly cooked filet mignon. They’re completely different — and on completely different levels.

“The Big Bang Theory” is mindless TV in an era of mindless TV. It’s not “The Real Housewives” or any of those other hollow reality shows, but it’s actually easier to watch. It’s one of those shows you can pick up literally anywhere and not be confused about what’s going on.

Imagine plopping down and deciding to watch Episode 1 of Season 6 of “Game of Thrones” and trying to follow along with what’s happening. You wouldn’t know the difference between Jon Snow and that dude Snow who sang “Informer.”

 

WHY GAME OF THRONES IS A WIN FOR EVERYBODY

Let’s think through this some and ponder what it means for pop culture in 2017. There’s one big thing that stands out to us: People are ready to be challenged by entertainment.

This isn’t a paint-by-numbers show that millions and millions of people are watching. It’s challenging. It’s tough. It’s crowded with characters and storylines. It’s not “NCIS” where each episode stands on its own without the others.

We should be happy about this. Yes, “Game of Thrones” is violent and full of sex and nudity (no complaints from us) but it’s also incredibly deep with context, character development and storytelling. It’s proof that people are willing to invest in something that isn’t easy, just so they can have their minds blown.

This goes against what we’ve been told for years. In order to reach the mass market, you have to dumb it down and make it easy.

Think of it this way: How often is the top-grossing movie at the box office also the movie that gets all the critical acclaim? Those two things are often very different, and include very different types of entertainment — with the junk-food type movie faring well at the box office and the challenging movies being the ones that earn acclaim and awards.

It says something about “Game of Thrones” that it’s been able to serve a tough-to-digest meal to so many consumers.

And you can bet many more will be coming in the year ahead.

 

 


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