With 6.6 million tuned in on Sunday when “Game of Thrones” returned for its fourth season, HBO is certainly attracting at least 50 percent more viewers to its hit franchise over Season 3. On Tuesday, HBO committed to a fifth and sixth season.
But the numbers are surprisingly modest when compared to even an average broadcast TV drama audience – even more so, when you consider its water-cooler status in office cubicles and college dorms alike.
So, what is behind the buzz around this dungeons-and-dragons extravaganza?
There is far more than a single answer to that question, which is key to understanding its success, say TV pundits, not all of whom are fans.
The series is a combination of a number of trends that have been maturing on TV in recent years, “including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and even video game role play,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. Add to that the fact that it is based on a series of novels, he says, “and you even have literary adaptation in there as well.”
Although he tunes in, has even watched the next two episodes, and describes himself as “mildly hooked,” Professor Thompson says that the series does not rise to the level of what he calls the best in literary television storytelling. This list would include such hits as “Breaking Bad,” "Mad Men,” “The Sopranos,” and “The Wire.”
What "Thrones" has going for it, he adds, is not moody meditations on identity and meaning, but rather “a rip-roaring, fantastical, soap-opera-quality good time ... where the next big thing never takes too long to come around.”
Early fans were stunned by the death of a core character played by Irish actor Sean Bean in the first season, he points out. Other central figures have bitten the dust since then. But this quality of going right to the edge and then plunging over a cliff of unexpected plot twists is precisely what gives the show its adrenaline and energy.
“It’s like the haunted house at Halloween or the roller coaster at a theme park,” he says. “You climb on for the sheer thrill of the twists and turns.”
Being on pay cable helps, says Derek Arnold, who teaches communications at Villanova University in Philadelphia, Pa. The primary advantage of a cable channel is being able to push the boundaries farther than traditional television.
The strengths, weaknesses, and intimate moments of characters come across much more vividly due to the extra scope writers and directors are allowed to take with sex, language, and violence, notes Mr. Arnold. A “pay” channel can push these levels even a bit farther, he adds, “which may increase the appeal to an audience to the point they are willing to pay monthly to follow these stories.”
The fact that the show may have more characters and subplots than any show in TV history – 70 by the count of at least one fan blog – helps cast a wide net, says Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York.
The show's feature-film production values also help.
The series is extremely popular in Washington – again, not surprising considering its intense themes of politicking, laced with palace intrigue and high-stakes warfare between hugely colorful kings, queens, princes, and peasants, all flavored with the wildly supernatural. Members of the cast were invited to the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2013, where politicos regaled them with how much they loved the show.
But not everyone driving the show’s popularity is willing to pay for it, says Professor Levinson, who is also the author of "New New Media." Piracy is a key driver of the show’s success. Most observers estimate that at least as many regular fans access the show illegally as count as HBO viewers. This is not unique to “Thrones,” he adds, because any show that is even mildly successful will be pirated today.
“This is just the world we live in,” he says. But while piracy still counts as theft of property, shows like “Thrones” rely on the buzz to rise on the pop culture radar. HBO understands this, he adds, “because the more people who watch the show and talk about it, the more who might actually pay to be able to watch it.”