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Davis, California

Sunday, May 26, 2024

We’ve never seen a show like “Game of Thrones” and we never will again

No show will ever attain the same cultural, critical acclaim

As “Game of Thrones” finally came to an end this season, I realized just how much of a monocultural phenomenon the show was — the likes of which we’ve never seen on television. The show is also a phenomenon we may never see again, thanks to a remarkable culmination of a perfect storm of factors. “Game of Thrones” is single-handedly the most tweeted about, most pirated and second most expensive show in the history of television.

With countless conventions around the globe from “Ice and Fire Con” to the 1.2 million square foot exhibition, “Con of Thrones,” “Game of Thrones” created a fandom on the same level as “Harry Potter” or “Star Wars.” It was a gossipy drama to some, a high fantasy adventure to others and a fine piece of art to even more — subjective to all. It’s the pinnacle of prestige television, with a combination of critical and cultural acclaim never seen before.  

“Game of Thrones” may be the last piece of television to hold our collective attention. As more and more entertainment players try to mimic the success of “Thrones,” they split the attention of viewers.


“Game of Thrones” epitomizes prestige television — it is television at its peak. With prolific stars, a massive budget and high production values, few shows can match the prestige HBO built with “Thrones.”

“[With prestige TV] you have the people who are the most celebrated in the culture working in the [TV] medium,” said Jaimey Fisher, the director of the UC Davis Humanities Institute and a German and Cinema and Digital Media professor. “And then you have, additionally, the money. Which is, of course, not a coincidence.”

Shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld” resemble the overall production quality of movies now more than ever. With a budget of over $90 million, the final season of “Game of Thrones” cost more than the budget of “A Star is Born,” “The Favourite,” “BlacKkKlansman” and “Roma” combined — all 2019 Academy Awards-nominated movies.

As the biggest event television show of our time, “Game of Thrones” was the Superbowl of Sunday night entertainment. Collective live reactions on Twitter and instant coverage after every episode were finally not limited to live sports. Whether it was a fear of social media spoilers or just because the show was so good, “Game of Thrones” made people block out time each Sunday night to watch it — it became an event. An estimated 10.7 million Americans skipped work in post-Superbowl fashion the day after the series finale, with an estimated productivity loss of $3.3 billion. HBO owned entertainment on Sunday nights the way “Seinfeld” owned Thursday nights in the 90s.   

Discussion of who would sit on the Iron Throne was an equal water-cooler common denominator to the discussion of who would make it out alive after “Infinity War.” And now that “Game of Thrones” is gone, we’re already seeing major entertainment providers try to use any oxygen that “Thrones” left behind. Amazon is working on a $250 million plus “Lord of the Rings” prequel series, Disney is launching Disney Plus this fall with a $100 million “Mandalorian” series headed by the MCU’s first director and HBO is trying to stay relevant by remaining in Westeros some 6,000 years earlier. It’s going to be a bloodbath.

But why was “Game of Thrones” so big, and how did it become the biggest show on television? In addition to telling a great story, “Thrones” was situated in the perfect storm of social media growth, starpower and the overall takeover of nerd culture.


The cultural ascension of “Thrones” came in parallel with the rise of Twitter and digital coverage culture. Premiering in April of 2011, “Thrones” came to life on our screens just as Twitter became the third most popular social media platform. As the show caught steam, Twitter doubled its user base in just over two years. And as Twitter became the dominant platform to immediately discuss and share cultural moments, “Thrones” had all the ingredients to thrive on the hot-take nature of Twitter: massive battles, incredible surprises, fantasy elements, politics, deaths of main characters and thematic arcs to keep it all meaningful. Not surprisingly, episode two of season eight, “The Battle of Winterfell,” was the most Tweeted about episode of scripted television ever with nearly 8 million tweets. For shows like “Lost” or “The Sopranos,” this amount of social media engagement wasn’t plausible.

“Game of Thrones” also began with just enough star power to lift off and break through to a wide audience. Every poster and commercial for the first season features Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage, and their marketability propelled the show to initial success. “Casting is crucial,” Fisher said. “Gandolfini was crucial to ‘Sopranos,’ Cranston was crucial to ‘Breaking Bad’ […] and Peter Dinklage —  who plays Tyrion –– was probably the person with the biggest career and crucial to ‘Game of Thrones.’”

Additionally, the cultural power of “Game of Thrones” created breakout stars of its own for countless of its leading actors. Appearing in “Thrones” made young stars (for many of whom “Thrones” was their first real job) like Richard Madden, Sophie Turner and Emilia Clarke marketable commodities who instantly attracted viewers to new projects. Richard Madden is now a Golden Globe winner, Sophie Turner stars in a major superhero film and Emilia Clarke landed leading roles in the “Terminator” and “Star Wars” franchises. These actors became ticket-sellers for any project attached to their names, all because “Thrones” became such a powerhouse.

With the ability to binge episodes of “Game of Thrones” through HBO GO and HBO NOW, countless viewers could jump on the “Thrones” bandwagon and catch up before the next episode or season. For my generation of television consumers, binging was already an accustomed method of watching TV thanks to Netflix. And if you weren’t watching since the beginning, it didn’t matter — the power of streaming allowed you to catch up. I was only 12 years old when the show premiered, so streaming past episodes was crucial to join the hype. I remember how much of a hassle it was to try and catch up on old episodes of “Lost” at a time when you could only stream via ABC’s website and people barely had smartphones. Streaming changed all of that.

In many ways, “Game of Thrones” is the television parallel to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Putting aside Sean Bean’s stellar appearances in both, “Thrones” made us believe in dragons and the White Walkers with ease. It made us forget that these worlds don’t exist or aren’t possible. “Thrones” entranced us and won 47 Emmy Awards to date.

“It is hard to imagine the show would have succeeded anywhere near the degree that it has without CGI,” Fisher added. “And Peter Jackson really helped pioneer that. And noticeably made it really legitimate in a way.“

“Lord of the Rings” made the fantasy genre a mainstream reality for viewers everywhere. Winning 17 out of 30 Academy Awards nominations, Jackson proved genre doesn’t have to restrict prestigious acclaim and CGI could elevate storytelling on-screen.

Plenty of shows are critically acclaimed. And plenty of shows are commercial and ratings successes. But rarely do the two crossover with such high critical acclaim and record-breaking ratings. “Thrones” managed to do both. The show currently sits at a 93% overall score on Rotten Tomatoes according to critics, with seven of the eight seasons ranging in the mid-to-high 90s. Commercially, “Thrones” was one of the most dominant shows in history with an estimated cumulative viewer count of over 44 million per episode in its final season. To put that number in perspective, last year’s NBA Finals peaked at 18.47 million viewers on ABC (a free channel). By every metric it was a historical and record-breaking success.

Of course, “Thrones” is adapted from George R.R. Martin’s New York Times best-selling books. And intentional or not, Martin certainly built an exorbitant amount of anticipation between releases. As a result, the story already had a lively, dedicated and cult-like following when the show was released in 2011. Casting leaks and full cast lists led to much anticipation with hardcore fans and even spilled over into the mainstream.

But more than just a hit, “Thrones” was a cultural phenomenon –– a weekly event letting everyone experience it together. On the after-show “Talk the Thrones,” Mallory Rubin put it best: “The digital age can be very isolating, you can feel very alone and a great story can really bring people together. And ‘Game of Thrones’ did that for a lot of people for a long time.”

“Game of Thrones” is the zeitgeist of the old way of watching television, and at the same time, a trailblazer for the new way of watching and experiencing it. It became such a success, by cultural standards, because of the technological capabilities of our time. We are able to connect with people watching the show all over the world thanks to platforms like Twitter and Reddit. And it can make a world that often feels so large and isolating feel just a little bit smaller.


So what is the next epic piece of television? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s “The Mandalorian” or some other big budget show trying to fill the void left by “Game of Thrones.” But I doubt anything will be as culturally dominant as “Thrones.” Nothing will ever reach the popular culture success of “Thrones” because these monocultural shows are going extinct. In its place won’t be one other massive show, but probably half a dozen smaller ones as new platforms of entertainment are splitting viewers’ attention.

Television simply isn’t experienced in the same way it used to be. “M.A.S.H.” had 100 million viewers for its finale on CBS in 1983. “Seinfeld” had 76.3 million viewers in 1998 on NBC. And “Friends” had 52.5 million viewers on NBC in 2004. “Game of Thrones” getting “only” 19.3 million live viewers obviously seems small in comparison, but these decreasing numbers represent the larger point that the collective attention of television viewers has been dwindling for decades –– almost exponentially –– because of more and more entertainment options. But, looking at the titlewave of television titles and streaming services trying to vye for our attention in the wake of “Thrones,” that number will likely never be reached again. For a show to reach those numbers, not on a free channel like NBC or CBS, but on a premium subscription service like HBO is remarkable.

Now that we have endless modes of entertainment at our fingertips (Youtube, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video and soon Disney Plus), there is no possible way we will all watch the same programs to the level we did with “Game of Thrones” or shows like “Seinfeld.” We are in a new era of television. The immediacy of streaming is just another development in the long history of the expansion of home entertainment that splinters our attention. With an average of 1.2 million concurrent viewers on Twitch this year and over one billion users on Youtube, the immediacy of online entertainment is already encroaching on our attention. When “M.A.S.H.” and “Seinfeld” were airing, the internet was a sliver of what it is today and TV was the primary form of entertainment in the home — which it no longer is. There are too many compelling entertainment options for another show to dominate our culture in the way that “Game of Thrones” had.

It would be amazing to have a show like “Game of Thrones” that I could talk about with anyone at any time. But I find myself loving the experiences I have with smaller, niche shows too. If television isn’t capable of having another massive hit like “Thrones,” let’s embrace all the great smaller ones out there. I truly wish more people would watch great shows that don’t get enough cultural recognition, such as “Killing Eve,” “Atlanta,” “Bodyguard” and “Sex Education,” if only for the joy of watching them.

“We live in a popular culture time of almost unlimited possibility,” said Andy Greenwald, the long-time television critic and screenwriter of “Legion” and “Briarpatch.” “Popular culture gives people a canvas to tell incredibly ambitious and long running stories in a way that wasn’t previously possible.” Let’s go hear those stories.

“Game of Thrones” was the wall that garnered all of our attention, the wall to guard against the other TV shows that are about to fight it out in a battle royale for our attention. And now the wall has come down, and thousands of attention-seeking properties spill out in its vacancy.

The impact and cultural dominance of “Game of Thrones” will have countless ripple effects throughout the entire future of the entertainment industry. Nobody would have expected an IP about bastards, dragons and bloody politics to be a massive hit, but it did just that, becoming the most culturally dominant show of our time. So bring on the prequels, the sequels and new shows alike, because nothing will ever be as big as “Game of Thrones.”

Written by: Calvin Coffee — cscoffee@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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