Why Game of Thrones is the Most Popular (Cable) Show of All Time
The runaway success of Game of Thrones was hardly assured, considering it’s spiritual predecessor, Rome, got nixed due to high budgets and middling ratings. But Game of Thrones has become the most popular show of all time, averaging over 10 million viewers per episode just in live US views, an insane feat for a program on a premium cable network. It has further become so embedded in the cultural zeitgeist that non fans are being rounded up and shipped off to the Iron Islands so Thronies don’t have to explain their references.
For those of us in the entertainment industry, such a bar-raising success begets one question: Why? Why is this show so popular, and can the success be reproduced?
Undoubtedly, it is a combination of elements that contribute to Game of Thrones’ record breaking ratings. Innumerable causes have been speculated as the root of the show’s appeal. Not least of which is the substantial popularity of the source material and the show’s ever increasing production values. Or, in the epitome of the HBO mold, the gratuitous nudity, sex, and violence yet intelligence and complexity to still be considered high-brow. Or the humor, entirely without camp, something somewhat unique in the fantasy genre. Even the timing, filling a hole left by the underwhelming Hobbit films. The storytelling is engaging, the show expertly cast, the characters deep and complex. Hell, maybe people just really like dragons.
I have no doubt all of these elements contributed to the deep devotion fans feel to Game of Thrones. But they miss the key point.
Beloved main characters die.
It may seem counter intuitive, and has become a running joke among GoT fans, but killing off their beloved characters is the lynchpin of their success as a series and, of course, was an crucial part of the Song of Ice and Fire novels. Despite this element’s importance, creators, or more likely their executive counterparts, are notoriously gun shy about killing off well loved characters (even in action and fantasy where it is especially apt), but can be seen reflected to great success in other blockbuster fantasy series such as Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings.
Killing people off isn’t just something that can be shoehorned into any storyline in an effort to get more viewers, but it is a legitimate story element that can often lead to more authentic, engaging stories if used properly. Filmmaking is about making your audience emote, but those emotions don’t always have to be positive. People don’t watch films about the holocaust for the jokes. Feelings of loss or sorrow are just as powerful as those of triumph or joy, and in experiencing these antipathetic events, by contrast, makes positive moments much more potent.
Even more important than the emotional reaction from characters dying, is how these events affect other moments in a series. In many series action sequences become little more than a momentary dalliance, because the audience knows, consciously or subconsciously, that the good guy is going to win and everything will work out for the best. In Game of Thrones, by contrast, things almost never work out for the best. So when a character is in a dangerous situation, it creates a moment of white knuckle suspense rather than just a visual spectacle.
This leads us to the second part of the question- can the success be reproduced? Obviously, it won’t be easy. In addition to the bloody streak GoT has cut through their cast list, many of the other components that contributed to the show’s success would need to be in place. But the series’ disregard for its characters’ well being can absolutely be emulated to great effect. In fact, the Game of Thrones format is simple to understand, even if it’s difficult to execute:
- Introduce a character
- Get the audience to sympathize with that character
- Murder the character horribly
The second step is where many fail (I’m looking at you, horror films), and doesn’t have a paint by numbers root to success that execs love to see. In fact, the difficulty of creating a sympathetic character is probably the reason that creators are reluctant to let anything happen to them. Yet it is only characters for whom audiences have formed a strong opinion whose deaths can illicit an emotional reaction, so working with sympathetic characters (as well as total bastards) is paramount.
While murdering everyone you love has gone gangbusters for Game of Thrones, undoubtedly other series would have seen varying degrees of success. Certainly, a platform like HBO self selects an audience that will enjoy the less easily digestible painful moments. But for nearly all entertainment that deals with action and, ultimately, danger, being harder on likable characters will have a strong net gain on quality of story and the growth of viewership. So, if we’re really lucky, none of our favorite characters will ever be safe again.