'Game of Thrones' grows more successful as series nears end, putting HBO in tricky spot

Key Points
  • Coming back from its longest hiatus in series history, "Game of Thrones" earned its highest showing for a first-run telecast with an average of 17.4 million viewers, the company said.
  • That topped the previous series high of 16.9 million viewers, who tuned in for the season seven finale in 2017.
  • It's rare for a show to gain in popularity as it continues its run, and its success puts HBO in a tough spot, as it works to integrate after Time Warner was acquired by AT&T. 
An image from "Game of Thrones" season 8.
Source: HBO

The much anticipated eighth season premiere of "Game of Thrones" aired Sunday — and viewership was hotter than dragon fire.

Coming back from its longest hiatus in series history, "Game of Thrones" earned its highest showing for a first-run telecast with an average of 17.4 million viewers, according to HBO. It exceeded the previous series high of 16.9 million viewers, who tuned in for the season seven finale in 2017.

Each year "Game of Thrones" has seen its audience grow, a rarity for television shows that typically lose viewership over the course of their runs. The series also has the distinct honor of being one of the most pirated television shows ever, something HBO has worked hard to prevent in recent years.

Adding to the excitement for the fantasy drama's debut is that this episode marks the beginning of the end for the beloved series. It is the final season of "Game of Thrones" and it's set to wrap up nearly a decade of dynamic storytelling.


The TV series, crafted by D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, comes from the mind of George R.R. Martin, the best-selling author of "A Song of Ice and Fire," a series of novels set in the fictional land of Westeros.

Here, warring factions vie for the Iron Throne, the symbol of power in the realm, and the seat of the King of the Seven Kingdoms. Over the course of the series, characters come to realize that there are bigger threats coming to destroy them all.

The finale of "Game of Thrones" comes at a time that HBO is at a crossroads. Last year, the network's parent company Time Warner was acquired by AT&T in a deal worth $85 billion. Time Warner was renamed WarnerMedia and, within the year, all top executives at the company have stepped down and been replaced.

Most notably, HBO's longtime chairman, Richard Plepler, resigned Feb. 28. He was the mastermind behind HBO's content and the one to sign-off on massive TV projects like "Game of Thrones."

While "Game of Thrones" is seen as a masterful move by HBO today, when it was first greenlit, there was no guarantee that it was going to be the massive success it became. Episode budgets were in excess of $15 million each, unheard of in the industry previously. These costs went towards manufacturing weaponry, sets in a dozen countries, cast and crew salaries and dozens of special effects houses needed to bring some of the show's more fantastical elements — like fire-breathing dragons — to life.

A scene from Game of Thrones.
Helen Sloan | HBO

Plepler was the one to agree to broadcast a show steeped in violence, nudity and incest. He also approved an expensive pilot and numerous reshoots and brought on two showrunners in Benioff and Weiss, who had relatively no experience in television production.

Plepler was the voice of reason at HBO.

"His greatest strength was cutting losses," Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush, said.

Shows like "Vinyl" and "Hung" got the ax despite millions of dollars worth of investment because they were not as strongly received by viewers as other shows.

Plepler was also the reason that shows like "Veep," "True Blood," "Little Big Lies" and "Silicon Valley" were greenlit.

"He understood that their audience isn't one uniform group," Pachter said. HBO viewers run the gambit from young to old and enjoy content from a variety of genres including sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, drama and politics.

Because of him, HBO has a pretty solid line-up of shows for next few years. Including, "Lovecraft Country," a show from the minds of Jordan Peele ("Us") and J.J. Abrams ("Lost"), based on Matt Ruff's novel of the same name.

"Lovecraft Country" is a horror drama that follows Atticus Black, his uncle George and Letitia Dandridge as they travel across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of Black's father. On their trek, the three must overcome racist terrors, but also terrifying monsters ripped straight from the pages of H.P. Lovecraft's prose.

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Also on the docket is a series based on the beloved graphic novel "Watchmen" by Alan Moore. The show takes place in an alternative America and is set in 1985. Nixon is still president and costumed superheroes are part of everyday life. However, when an old comrade is murdered, vigilante Rorschach uncovers a plot to kill and discredit all past and current superheroes.

The "Watchmen" series is being written and produced by Damon Lindelof ("The Leftovers").

"I don't know how people choose good content, but he had it," Pachter said of Plepler.

HBO also has additional seasons of "Westworld," "Barry" and "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" available for subscription viewers.

Although, it should be noted that Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, creators behind "Westworld," recently signed a five-year deal with Amazon that is estimated to be worth around $150 million. The deal will not impact future seasons of "Westworld," but it is a worrying sign that two prominent creators have made commitments to another production company.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Plepler's tenure was the number of Emmy nominations HBO received and won. "Game of Thrones" alone has secured 128 Emmy nominations and won 47, including best drama series and numerous acting awards.

Peter Dinklage poses with the Outstanding Supporting Actor for a Drama Series for 'Game of Thrones' during to the 70th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at the Microsoft Theater on September 17, 2018.
Kevork Djansezian | NBC | NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Pachter noted that Netflix had more than 200 original shows that it put out in 2018, while HBO had less than two dozen. The two companies had the same number of Emmy nominations.

"'Game of Thrones' has been the poster child for HBO's mantra of quality over quantity," Peter Csathy, founder of Creatv Media said.

Bob Greenblatt, the former NBC Entertainment chairman, has been named the chairman of WarnerMedia, and is tasked with overseeing HBO, TBS, TNT, and TruTV. Under Greenblatt, HBO could soon start pumping out even more content. HBO is expected to produce about 50% more content this year than it did last year.

Greenblatt is no stranger to producing quality content. He produced "Six Feet Under," one of HBO's early hits. He also worked at Showtime from 2003 to 2010, where shows like "Dexter," "Weeds" and "Nurse Jackie" became big hits with audiences.

While HBO has been able to survive without "Game of Thrones" for about a year, the last season aired in 2017, the finale of the show does bring up some questions and concerns about HBO going forward.

Csathy noted that with the finale, some users may take the opportunity to reevaluate if they want to keep their HBO subscriptions. He said that most viewers tend to sign up for a service and then forget it, paying month after month even if they don't actively use the service or only use it for certain periods in the year.

"Consumers might use the end of a show to take an inventory of their services," he said.

Not to mention, HBO will face increased competition from Disney's new streaming service Disney+, due out in November, as well as Comcast's upcoming service.

But, 2019 isn't really the end of "Game of Thrones," at least not entirely. There is at least one prequel series based on Martin's novels in the works. While it likely won't air for at least a year or two, it could entice viewers to stick with HBO or encourage them to sign back up with the service ahead of its premiere.

"It's a never-ending game to keep ahead of the others," Csathy said of the competition in the streaming world. "We may think that [HBO is] fine in terms of content for the next five years, but we don't know what the others are bringing out or what will capture the minds of consumers. We just don't know."

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Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.