House of Questions: All Eyes on HBO’s Dragon

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by HBO Max

Game of Thrones ended its epic eight-season run three years ago as the most-watched show in HBO history, an unlikely outcome given how it started back in April 2011. While network suits always had confidence in the show’s long-term prospects — hence the massive investment in production and marketing —they were also fairly certain it would not be setting any records out of the gate. In fact, they weren’t even thinking it would be their biggest hit of the season. “No one is expecting it to hit Boardwalk Empire numbers,” an exec at the network emailed me at the time. Perhaps it was a case of preemptive spin, but those internal predictions turned out to be right: Game of Thrones opened with 4.3 million linear viewers, about a half-million fewer than watched the series premiere of Terrence Winter’s mob drama seven months earlier.

More than a decade later, HBO is once again getting ready to launch an adaption of a book from George R.R. Martin’s GoT universe, and once again, the expectations for the project are sky-high. The difference now, of course, is that rather than being the first of its name, House of the Dragon is following an icon. What’s more, the entire TV universe has changed, not just compared to 2011, but even when measured against the landscape of just three years ago, when GoT ended. House of the Dragon is undeniably a blockbuster event on the TV calendar, but it will be sharing the spotlight with a dozen other big shows rolling out of the next few weeks — including an even more elaborate fantasy-adventure series (Prime Video’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.)

And yet, this is still the Game of Thrones franchise we are talking about. More than 44 million Americans watched the show’s finale, and its fandom remains incredibly active. Plus, given the rapid growth of HBO Max and all the free time folks had during the early days of the pandemic, many millions more likely binged GoT for the first time after the final episode aired in 2019. There may be a lot of big deals in TV land nowadays, but few carry with them as much anticipation as House of the Dragon. Ahead of its 9 p.m. ET Sunday debut, here’s a look at some of the pressing questions surrounding its launch.

How much is riding on the success or failure of Dragon?

In terms of financial outlay, there’s no getting around it: House of the Dragon is a very big, very expensive bet, and as such, Warner Bros. Discovery execs really want it to pay off. Per Variety, HBO is spending a bit less than $200 million to produce the first ten-episode season of the show — more than Game of Thrones but dramatically less than what Amazon Studios shelled out for Prime Video’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power or even what Netflix spent on the most recent season of Stranger Things. While the price tag for Dragon isn’t ridiculously high by modern standards, anytime a show costs nearly $20 million per episode — and that’s before marketing and promotion — it automatically attaches a whole bunch of pressure to the project.

The natural agita that comes with a massive financial swing is also being intensified by a few other factors. For one thing, Dragon is the first of what WBD and HBO Max execs hope will be many spinoffs from the GoT universe. If the first season of Dragon is deemed to be something less than a success, it will make the job of launching future iterations of the franchise that much more difficult. But a failure very likely wouldn’t be fatal: GoT has too many worlds and characters to explore, and fantasy and sci-fi fans are notoriously forgiving when it comes to giving beloved franchises second and third chances. The very first Star Trek movie back in 1979, for example, got decidedly mixed reviews and is not universally loved by Trekkers. It nonetheless did huge at the box office and set the stage for a far better-received sequel.

There’s also the fact that Dragon’s debut comes just as HBO Max is enduring a spate of bad headlines related to its new overlords at Warner Bros. Discovery. While the platform is a crucial and commercial success, corporate cost cutting has resulted in a litany of (often overcooked) stories casting Max in a negative light. So much the way Netflix suits were praying a successful season four of Stranger Things would help it change the subject from the streamer’s sagging stock price, a red-hot launch for Dragon would be most appreciated within the exec suites of Warner Bros. Discovery right now.

But as much as HBO Max and its parent company very much want Dragon to work, it would be an exaggeration to say they “need” it to be a smash. This is not a brand-new app struggling to connect with audiences or even a platform desperately in search of hit shows. Just the opposite: While the same tailwinds slowing domestic subscriber growth have had an impact on Max, too, the platform’s overall subscriber base (including international markets) has grown steadily since its May 2020 launch. It heads into next month’s Emmy Awards with the most nominations of any platform by a mile, and critics haven’t been shy about touting the platform’s overall quality. Even in the worst-case scenario — reviews are awful, ratings disappointing, social buzz is tepid — the HBO brand is strong enough to power through. (I mean, it survived The Newsroom …)

Has HBO Max done enough to market the show?

Whatever the results of the streamer’s promotional campaign for Dragon, no one can call it “limited.” HBO Max chief content officer Casey Bloys tells Buffering the effort is “one of the biggest campaigns we’ve done,” while HBO Max marketing chief Zach Enterlin says the platform is making “almost three times the media investment” in Dragon as HBO did for the launch of any season of Thrones. “This is an event-level campaign for us,” Enterlin adds.

It might not seem like it to everyone, of course. In the choose-your-own-adventure era of television, where viewers all craft their own TV experiences versus simply flipping through the same handful of channels every night, it can be tough to gauge how much networks are spending to get the word out. If you’re a cord-cutter who doesn’t regularly watch cable shows, for example, you’ve missed the ads that have been on linear television. Likewise, if you pay to not see ads on streaming services, you’re missing the many commercials HBO Max has bought on competing platforms. “It’s different launching a tentpole show now than many years ago,” Enterlin explains. “We’ve become much more sophisticated in terms of targeting and how we speak directly to specific audiences.”

In the not-so-distant past, according to the exec, a network’s goal was “many-to-many messaging” — spending lots of money on shows that reach a broad audience in the hope that your promo would be seen by audiences interested in the title. But while Max is still making “a very healthy and appropriate investment in the broad platforms like television and outdoor,” much of its marketing spend now is devoted to microtargeting consumers via digital ads. And it’s not just sponsored posts in your social-media feeds. Smart TV ad tech means Dany from Des Moines, Iowa, might watch ABC’s World News Tonight and see three different ads for Dragon, while Jon from Snowflake, Arizona, tunes in at the same time and sees none at all.

Streamers such as HBO Max are also being more careful about when they really begin picking up the pace of their marketing messages. These days, “immediacy is incredibly important,” Enterlin says.We concentrate a significant portion of our media in the two to three weeks leading into a premiere. So while Max released the first big teaser for Dragon all the way back in October — it has more than 17 million views on YouTube — the streamer’s hype machine didn’t really kick into high gear until Comic-Con at the end of July. That was also when HBO leaned into its new Warner Bros. Discovery synergy by airing the entire three-minute spot during the first night of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.

Are viewers amped to return to the Game of Thrones universe?

If you just read certain corners of Twitter, you’d likely come away with the impression most viewers loathed the GoT series finale and have now decided they have no interest in returning to Westeros ever again. No doubt some folks really are done with Westeros and all of its bloody, gory, and dragon-y chaos. Data, however, suggests plenty of others can’t wait to return. Bloys says viewership of the original series has been steadily building in the weeks leading up to Dragon’s debut, particularly as the premiere date for Dragon draws closer. And according to Enterlin, “Game of Thrones just wrapped its biggest week of viewers since Max launched.”

Third-party data backs up those boasts. Ratings giant Nielsen tells Vulture that GoT notched 431 million minutes of viewing among U.S. audiences from August 8 to 14, doubling its average viewership compared to the last few weeks of June. Meanwhile, Parrot Analytics, whose demand index looks at everything from social media to piracy numbers to track interest in shows, says that interest in GoT last week was 58 times bigger than the typical shows in the United States, a 42 percent increase in that metric compared to six months ago. And for the year to date, only three other shows — Stranger Things, SpongeBob Squarepants, and SNL— have generated more audience excitement. That buzz is carrying over to House of the Dragon: Parrot says prerelease audience demand for the unseen series ranks in the top 3 percent of all titles around the world, averaging 23.5 times the demand for a typical show. By contrast, Prime Video’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, bowing September 2, stands at 3.8 times the average demand.

This doesn’t mean Dragon is destined to be a hit and LOTR is in trouble. For one thing, both shows have surged to bigger demand indexes this year. LOTR peaked at a very strong 26.4 times normal demand after its Super Bowl trailer dropped in February, while Dragon jumped to a Parrot demand score of 34.3 when the Comic-Con trailer hit. Bottom line: There appears to be a healthy interest in both shows, even if — depending on your personal media habits — one show or the other might not “feel” as big as you’d expect given how much money went into their respective productions.

Will we get actual ratings, and if so, how will they compare to Game of Thrones?

Data nerds, rejoice. Bloys confirms that because the series will air on linear HBO as well as HBO Max, the network will be releasing real, actual numbers to quantity audience consumption of Dragon. “It’s a show on HBO, and we will put out an all-in number,” he says. As has been the case for some years now, that number won’t simply reflect the audience measured by Nielsen. It will be a cumulative figure encompassing the Sunday linear telecast and same-day reruns as well as how many viewers stream the show on HBO Max. It will also grow over the course of the show’s run as new streaming (and linear replay) views get tallied.

This could be a blessing and a curse, of course. While Hulu, Netflix, and Prime regularly get press coverage for vague press releases touting “the biggest” or “the most” whatever, there are never actual viewership numbers attached. (Netflix touts the number of hours viewed, which is fine — but doesn’t really say how many actual people watched.) By attaching a hard viewer number to the audience for Dragon, HBO will have to deal with comparisons to Game of Thrones. And while anything is possible, there is nobody at the streamer (or in the TV industry) who expects Dragon will come close to the numbers GoT was pulling in its final season — though officially, Bloys isn’t saying anything one way or the other about what he expects in terms of audience. “There’s no way I would set anybody’s expectations coming into this other than we think it’s a really, really great show and hope people check it out,” he says.

As I noted at the start of this story, the early ratings for GoT, and the massive changes to the TV business, are essential when weighing Dragon’s ratings performance. In addition to the all-in number HBO releases to the press, Nielsen will release a number for how many cable TV viewers tune in Sunday night to watch the show on TV (or catch up via DVR that evening). It may be the first bit of data seen by the public, and it will be horribly misleading.

Fact is, linear audiences for entertainment shows have fallen off a cliff over the past three to five years as more viewers either cut the cord or simply stream shows via apps even when they still have cable. In the U.S., more than half of HBO Max’s subscriber base has access to the service because they subscribe to HBO on cable. And while many of those folks still tune to the HBO linear channel or set their DVRs, a big chunk has now been trained to simply click on the Max app, which is a million times more user-friendly than most cable-on-demand setups. Indeed, Nielsen released new data Thursday showing that, for the first time ever, Americans spent more time streaming TV than watching it on cable (though broadcast and cable combined still command the most attention). So any early ratings that leak out Monday or Tuesday of next week will be woefully incomplete and should be viewed with skepticism since they really can’t be compared to linear numbers from even a few years ago.

The other thing to keep in mind with Dragons versus GoT comparisons is that the 40 million-plus audience for the latter show simply isn’t going to transfer over to the spinoff. HBO isn’t starting from scratch the way it was in 2011: The whole reason to spend so much money on a spinoff is the expectation that the brand awareness from the earlier show will give the new one a big head start with audiences. If Dragon opens to an all-in number south of 5 million viewers, à la GoT, it will be a disaster. If it comes close to or surpasses the numbers for the most recent season of Euphoria — a multi-platform audience of 13 million viewers — Max execs will probably be very happy. Anywhere in between will probably be open to debate, though it will still be important to be patient. Because it’s the late summer and many folks are on vacation, many viewers might put off getting into Dragon for a few weeks, which is why the 14-day and 28-day cumulative numbers Max releases may be even more important than the next-day data.

How will HBO measure success?

Bloys is not eager to play the expectations game when it comes to Dragon, understandably refusing to make any predictions about ratings. But on the question of how HBO will measure the show’s success, he says the fundamental metrics will apply. “Success is defined as it is for any other show, with one caveat,” he says. “With any show, you always look at how it performs. Does it generate a lot of interest? Do people sign up to see it? How are the reviews? How is buzz?” But with Dragon, he says the aforementioned boost the spinoff is giving to the GoT library is also worth factoring in. “We’re seeing it already with people coming into the service to either rewatch or watch Game of Thrones for the first time,” he says. “That’s also a measure of success.”

Indeed, for all the attention the data from Nielsen and HBO’s own research team will get, one of the best yardsticks to judge Dragon will be how it impacts HBO Max’s subscriber numbers during the third and fourth quarters of this year, particularly in the U.S. Max’s domestic subscriber base was basically flat during the second quarter of 2022, so if that number grows notably in the second half of the year, Dragon will likely get a lot of the credit. It’ll also be worth monitoring third-party data about subscriber churn for HBO Max in the coming months to see if the show has an impact. But whatever the numbers show, don’t be surprised if the streamer moves very quickly to give Dragon a second-season order. It renewed GoT for its second season two days after the premiere, and given how much the platform has invested in the spinoff, it’s hard to imagine a universe where the show doesn’t get a shot at a second season, particularly given GoT’s track record for building audiences between seasons.

Will there be more spinoffs?

Despite internet speculation to the contrary, Dragon is the only new green-lit series from the GoT universe. “Right now, the only [show] out there is House of the Dragon,” Bloys says when asked about other rumored projects. That said, HBO confirmed years ago that ideas for other GoT-inspired series are in various stages of development, and Bloys says that continues to be the case. Beyond that, however, he’s not willing to say much.

“Part of making television is the development process, and not everything works,” he explains. “There’s a lot of experimentation. So every script or idea that we put in development is reported on like it’s being shot, and it’s just not the case. There are people who think we’re shooting — literally shooting — five to ten other series at the moment. And we’re not. We’re just trying to develop good scripts. And if we feel very strongly about one and we think it’s great, we’ll make another one.”

House of Questions: All Eyes on HBO’s Dragon