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.