Will HBO's Game of Thrones gamble pay off?

Illustration for article titled Will HBOs Game of Thrones gamble pay off?

With a $50 million budget for 10 episodes, Game of Thrones is one of the biggest dice-throws in television history. HBO couldn't start small with its adaptation of George R.R. Martin's bestselling series, so the network had to risk all.


But will HBO's bold gambit in spending so much on a dark, weird series pay off? Or will the show appeal only to fans of the books? The debate is already starting.

Writing for The Atlantic, Nick Baumann from Mother Jones sent a raven flying into the skies with a dire warning:

The real test for Game of Thrones, of course, is whether it can gain an audience beyond fanboys and fangirls. One problem... is that epic television series with lots of characters can take a while to get going. It doesn't help that the book itself starts slowly. My girlfriend is reading it now, and she needed 50 or 100 pages to get hooked. This problem isn't unique to Game of Thrones-I know several people who watched one or two episodes of The Wire and then stopped...

I worry that many folks who haven't read the books, or don't read fantasy generally, won't find the moral ambiguity and general brutality of Martin's world particularly appealing. Part of the draw of Game of Thrones for fantasy readers is how different it is from the rest of the genre. But if you don't read fantasy, you might not care about that. Variety's Jon Weisman complains about the "complete joylessness in this world," and he's only seen the first three episodes.


It's a really interesting point, that Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire made its mark partly because of how different the series is from other fantasy books — but non-fans of fantasy might not care about that. Baumann also says the tons of graphic sex may turn off people, and the ambiguously brown Dothraki horse lords may feel like too much of a "noble savage" stereotype to some viewers, and you may be hearing a lot about people's discomfort with the Dothraki scenes in weeks to come.

But HBO series chief Sue Naegle tells Entertainment Weekly she's confident the show will get renewed — so much so, she's already telling the producers to start working on storylines for the show's second season. Naegle tells EW that this unusual show is exactly the kind of programming HBO wants — shows you can't see anywhere else, so you have to pay to watch them on HBO. The huge price tag for the first season is actually a major incentive to keep the show going, adds Naegle: "You don't want to see shows like this that are a big investment do one season and out." HBO is airing the first episode 11 times during the first 26 hours of the show's run, so you'll have lots of chances to see it.

In that same piece, EW's James Hibberd sounds a confident note:

Still, nothing is set in stone. No matter how much momentum there's behind the show, or how quality-driven and multi-platform-based the business model, HBO still needs Thrones to deliver a certain number on Sunday nights to continue. And its relatively large budget is a double-edged sword: Thrones ratings need to be stronger than a Treme or an In Treatment or The Wire - HBO shows that received renewals based largely on critical acclaim. But given the success of True Blood and AMC's The Walking Dead, high-quality, adult-targeted genre shows on cable have recently proven they can indeed deliver enviable numbers, and strong early reviews suggest Thrones might have what it takes.


My big concern is that, unlike Walking Dead and True Blood, Game of Thrones is both horrifying and confusing — there are a million characters, and most of them are introduced in the first episode. The big worry would be that a lot of people will tune in for the first hour, to see what the fuss was about — and then not come back for week two. But let's hope HBO's viewers are made of sterner stuff.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


HBO's business model in almost inscrutable. We'll be desperately waiting for news on the viewership of the premiere, and likely the HBO execs will be glancing at that too, but more likely they've been watching the subscription numbers. If they've signed on a large number of subscribers in the last month and more next month then Game of Thrones will be a success. The Nielsen numbers matter, but finding a new audience for HBO matters more.