Why HBO Renewed Game of Thrones Despite Its Middling Ratings

Photo: Nick briggs

Final numbers are in, and as Vulture reported exclusively Monday, GoT did not roar out of the gate a Boardwalk Empire–level blockbuster. Per Nielsen, a little more than 2.2 million HBO subscribers caught the initial 9 p.m. telecast of the network’s lavish adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novels. That’s less the half the audience for last September’s similarly hyped Boardwalk Empire (4.8 million), and below other big recent HBO events such as night one of mini-series The Pacific (3.1 million) and John Adams (2.5 million). Game even finished behind the most recent season finale of modestly rated HBO comedy Hung (2.3 million). So why was HBO so quick to renew GoT?

Well, even if the numbers were mildly disappointing — at least relative to the massive marketing campaign for the show, whose budget one veteran cable hypemeister told Vulture was “at least $15 million” — the 2.2 million bow is still a very solid number for an HBO series. The similarly geek-friendly True Blood, for instance, bowed to a mere 1.4 million viewers back in fall 2008; within two years, it had become the network’s biggest hit, attracting more than 5 million viewers on a weekly basis. HBO has also trained viewers to know that they don’t need to watch a show at one time: It aired the GoT opener three times in a row Sunday (boosting its overall viewership to 4.2 million, vs. the 7.1 million who caught Boardwalk during its similar triplecast back in September). HBO also aired the GoT pilot nearly a dozen times on its various channels within a day of its premiere, while HBO subscribers have been repeatedly educated to keep in mind HBO series are available any time via HBO On Demand. Meanwhile, it’s always worth remembering that HBO does not live on ratings alone: Media buzz and Emmy recognition are at least as important to the premium network, which relies on folks believing that if they cancel their subscription to the channel, they’ll also cancel their self-image as A Smart, Hip Consumer of Television So Smart, It’s Not Really TV.

The test of GoT will come in the weeks ahead, as word of mouth about the show spread. HBO execs are no doubt betting the show’s ratings will build, the way True Blood did. That’s a possibility, of course, but True Blood didn’t arrive with anywhere near the same level of hype as GoT; its marketing campaign was much smaller, and critics weren’t nearly as orgasmic in their praise of HBO’s bloodsuckers. What’s more, while Blood built buzz as a guilty pleasure with frothy, sexy fun, most media about GoT has focused on how complicated and layered the series’ plot is. Is it really a good thing when magazines and websites are printing elaborate guides to a show before it’s even premiered? We’ll soon find out.

Related: Is Game of Thrones for Newbies or Superfans? A Post-Show Debate
Game of Thrones for Experts: Can TV Possibly Mimic the Books’ Unique Structure?
Game of Thrones for Newbies: We Put a Complicated Show in Familiar Terms


Why HBO Renewed Game of Thrones Despite Its Middling Ratings