What does the popularity of 'Game of Thrones' say about TV viewers?

'Thrones' has surpassed 'The Sopranos' to become HBO's most popular show ever. What does its high viewership say about its fans and how we watch TV today?

Helen Sloan/HBO
'Game of Thrones' stars Gwendoline Christie.

Every week, millions of viewers tune in to watch the latest political machinations and swashbuckling adventures on the HBO fantasy drama “Game of Thrones.”

According to the network, “Thrones” is now the most popular show aired by HBO, passing its previous pop culture touchstones such as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.” The show has also garnered critical acclaim, with the program picking up the best drama Emmy in 2015, becoming the first fantasy show to receive the honor. 

If our media is a mirror, what does the show’s popularity say about TV watchers? 

“Thrones” is based on the “Song of Ice and Fire” novels by George R.R. Martin, the first of which was published in 1996. To attempt even a short summary of the show, which is famous for its cast of dozens and complicated plotlines, would test your patience, but suffice to say it centers on the fantasy world of Westeros and the various characters who get caught up in the battle to rule the kingdom. 

The TV version of the story debuted in 2011 and ratings have grown since, with almost every season premiere drawing more viewers than the premiere before it. For some shows, a sixth season (begun on April 24) represents a program past its heyday. But when it comes to "Thrones," Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, says, “It's burning brightly. It's six seasons [in] and stronger than ever.” 

The program is famous for its dark content, where choices are often portrayed in shades of gray and even the seemingly good characters occasionally act in morally dubious ways. The dark themes of the show and morally ambiguous characters are echoed in many acclaimed shows of recent decades, from HBO’s own “Sopranos” to recent successes like AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”

Yet despite the darkness of “Thrones,” viewers are drawn to the program in droves. It may be, says Aymar Jean Christian, assistant professor in the department of communication studies at Northwestern University, that characters with uncertain values add suspense for fans. 

“There's excitement at not knowing what characters are going to do because if you are in a universe where there's moral ambiguity, anything can happen,” Mr. Christian says. He points out that the first episode of the series ends with someone attempting to kill a child. “I think the show kind of provokes viewers to think, 'Oh, this character will do this to a child in episode 1. What else would happen?'”

Characters with changing allegiances can also give viewers even more to debate, says Christian.

“A lot of the characters on the show right now have done some pretty horrible things,” he says. “There are some characters that you might have been rooting for in season two who after something in season three makes you much more conflicted about rooting for them. I think that the ability for allegiances to shift among fans gets them to talk about the show.” 

In addition, Michael Davis, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions and Professor of Philosophy at the Illinois Institute of Technology, believes that the popularity of movies like the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" series may have led to a move in the other direction.

"We've gone through a period when we were doing morally unambiguous characters," Mr. Davis said. "People got tired of that. That was part of the cycle."

Would viewers have reacted differently to “Thrones” years ago, with its sexual and violent sequences? Christian says viewers might have been taken aback in the past simply because TV content was quite different than today. 

“It's likely there would have been more shock had this premiered ten or 20 years ago,” he says. “But I don't know if that's because people have become more accustomed to that kind of stuff but rather they would have been more surprised that a show like that would have arisen out of the television industry at that time. People were kind of used to TV giving you a certain type of content and if a network like HBO had taken that risk a long time ago, it's possible they might have sparked some ire amongst their fanbase, simply because people weren't used to it and not that many other networks are doing it.”

He says that “people are more used to, especially, violence on TV today.” Before “Thrones” premiered, programs such as “The Sopranos” and “Sons of Anarchy” had already appeared on television. 

While “Thrones” included plenty of violence and sexual content from the beginning, last year’s episodes in particular attracted the ire of some viewers. An episode involving the sexual assault of one of the main characters, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), caused Sen. Claire McCaskill, for one, to tweet that she was finished with the show.

Yet Matt Cecil, a Seattle fan who takes part in a “Thrones” Facebook group, says that for him, the dark segments lead to pondering about tragedy in society. “[It] really makes you think about the world and reflect, and [it] kind of gives you this understanding that things aren’t always rosy,” he says.

Mr. Thompson says he does find some of the content on the show “problematic” but says he wonders if viewers who are outraged over the depictions would go so far as to stop watching the series altogether.

“While that may be turning off a segment of the audience, the question is [if] turning them off [is] also making them turn it off,” he says of the show. 

“Thrones” producer Bryan Cogman said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that it was all in service of the story. 

“We told our story and put our characters through what we put them through for a reason,” Mr. Cogman said. “We knew in the writing and execution it was our darkest and most troubling season, but I believe very strongly that that’s drama.… Season 5 was meant to break a lot of these characters down. A lot of people were upset, but the majority of the audience and the Emmy voters understood it’s part of a grand scheme and I think viewers know we’re aiming toward something.” 

Now HBO programming president Michael Lombardo says that the main female characters are at the center of the story during the current episodes. “They power this season,” Mr. Lombardo told EW. “It’s organic to the storytelling, yet a radical shift. It’s the women that are the hope that we’re watching as the chess pieces move this season, and it’s very exciting.” 

Co-creator David Benioff says this was always the idea, however, and is not a reaction to last year’s outcry.

“The thing that’s slightly frustrating is the idea that we’re responding to criticism from last year, so therefore we’re going to beef up the female roles – that’s blatantly untrue,” Mr. Benioff said in an interview with EW. “What happens this year has been planned for quite some time and is not a response.” 

While “Thrones” is HBO's No. 1 program, it doesn't draw as big an audience as a broadcast network hit.

“We say what a big success it is, but it's a big success by the standards of a much smaller slice of viewers,” Thompson says. 

For the sixth season premiere episode, “Thrones” had almost 8 million viewers during its cable TV airing, then brought in more via other platforms such as HBO Go and HBO Now. Today, these numbers can be added to ratings in a way that wouldn’t even have been possible several years ago.

In addition, when repeat airings of the sixth season premiere and streaming numbers were counted, the episode attracted more than 10 million viewers, but that’s still well below a show such as CBS’s “NCIS,” a recent episode of which garnered almost 15 million viewers. 

What else draws viewers to the program? Cecil, a married father of two who works as a Natural Language Understanding research engineer at Nuance Communications, says he enjoys the fantasy genre in general and so had read Mr. Martin’s books before the show premiered. 

“It's fantasy, but it's kind of a mature fantasy,” he says. “It's got real characters.” He notes the similarities between the “Thrones” plotlines and various aspects of European history. Much of “Thrones” centers on what it takes to win and then rule a kingdom. “…It feels like you're reading a history that happens to have these kind of interesting magic things going on,” Cecil says.

Thompson thinks viewers are also drawn in by the storytelling on the show, which includes surprising character deaths and suspenseful episodes.

“It's just really, really high drama and it just keeps delivering,” he says.

He also notes the detailed fictional world of the show, which can provide a fascination akin to that of fans for the “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” universes. 

“It's this whole world that you can really immerse yourself in,” Thompson says. 

“Thrones” is very much a show of our current TV age and one that may not have been able to succeed in a time before DVRs and binge-watching. Fans are asked to remember hordes of minor characters and plotlines that kicked off in season one and were possibly not referenced again until years later.

In the past, while a viewer was watching TV, “the baby was crying, the doorbell was ringing, the phone was ringing, you were probably out of the room making dinner,” Thompson says. “It really had to be easy to consume. But that's not how we have to watch television anymore. If the phone rings, you push pause.” 

And if you’re watching “Thrones” online, devouring multiple episodes at a time, surprises in the episodes make you want to watch the next one. “A show like this could never have existed before those opportunities were available,” Thompson says. “And it's a perfect binge-watching show. It's got the great cliffhangers.” 

In the increasing ratings, “Thrones” echoes the examples set by shows such as “Breaking Bad” on AMC and “Empire” on Fox. With these programs, word-of-mouth can play a part, with fans telling their friends to check out a show and these new viewers able to start from the beginning. 

“Bad” creator Vince Gilligan famously credited Netflix – which allowed viewers to watch old episodes of the show – with having helped keep the show going. “Empire” surprised industry watchers by steadily increasing its ratings week-by-week during its first season in 2015. 

So where does the show go from here? Reports change about how many seasons of “Thrones” are planned. The show is just about out of literary material, as most characters have been brought up to where they are at the end of Martin’s newest book in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series, “A Dance with Dragons.” A release date for the next novel in the series has not yet been set. 

Thompson says we’ve seen a TV series striking out on its own like this before – he points to “M*A*S*H,” which was based on a film but created many of its own stories for an 11-season run. He says the show is at a crucial point in storytelling. “It was raised on Martin,” Thompson says. “But is it now enough of an adult that it can go off on its own?” 

Cecil says as a book reader, he’s in the dark as to the series’ events for the first time. “I kind of like not knowing what’s going to happen,” he says.

Thompson notes that in terms of storytelling in future seasons, the many characters on “Thrones” works in its favor. “’Game of Thrones’ has got the advantage that they tend to kill the character before it gets worn out,” he says. With NBC’s “Friends,” for example, “those six characters,” he says, “…We’d seen from them what we needed to see ... [‘Game of Thrones’] keeps introducing new ones.” 

What else could affect the future of the show? Simple age. 

“Its biggest threat is that it's getting old,” Thompson says. “That gets every series, sooner or later.”

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