HBO’s Big Dragon Bet Paid Off

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo Courtesy of HBO

Whenever a project turns out to be a big hit, Hollywood suits love to proclaim that they never doubted audiences would embrace it. Ask HBO–HBO Max chief Casey Bloys about his prelaunch expectations for House of the Dragon, however, and you’ll get no such spin. “Was I anxious? I’ve been anxious since the development process,” he says while simultaneously letting out a sort of “Are you kidding me?” chuckle. It’s easy for Bloys to laugh now because any concern audiences wouldn’t be ready to make a return trip to the Game of Thrones universe proved unfounded: On multiple levels, House of the Dragon’s inaugural season was a clear-cut success — an outcome that was anything but a given.

Evaluating the performance of streaming-era programming remains a tricky proposition, of course. While it’s a myth that there are no reliable ratings data for digital — Nielsen does track nonlinear viewing — the third-party numbers we have aren’t as comprehensive or widely available as they are for network programming. But things aren’t quite as murky for House of the Dragon since it straddles the linear and digital universes, airing on the HBO cable networks at the same time it streams on HBO Max. As a result, HBO actually puts out concrete Nielsen-verified numbers for the show every week as well as its own calculation of the show’s broader reach based on both HBO Max streaming and HBO cable-on-demand viewership. Those figures, plus other data points, paint a picture of a series that launched extraordinarily well and maintained momentum during its ten-week run, not just in the U.S. but around the world:

➽ While final numbers aren’t in yet, HBO says episodes of House of the Dragon have averaged 29 million U.S. viewers each week so far across linear and digital platforms, easily making it the most-watched series from the network since Game of Thrones signed off in 2019. Dragon has already surpassed the tune-in for season two of Euphoria (19.5 million), and it’s closing in on the numbers Thrones drew with its penultimate season (33 million). Dragon could theoretically close some of the gap with GoT season seven within the next few weeks, too, since HBO typically keeps tallying viewership several weeks after a show’s finale in order to capture viewers who opt to binge full seasons. (One record that seems safe from Dragon’s fire, however, is that of the final season of Thrones. It attracted an estimated 46 million viewers per episode.)

➽ Nielsen’s linear ratings track with the cumulative multiplatform data reported by HBO. Same-day ratings for the 9 p.m. premiere telecasts of Dragons — which measure people who watch the premiere on cable the same night it airs — show episodes pulling in about 2 million viewers each week. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s double or triple what most HBO scripted series pull in these days on the linear platform and four or five times the linear premiere audience for some of its competitors. (FX’s American Horror Story notched fewer than 400,000 viewers with its return last week.) HBO declined to provide “live plus seven” linear ratings, which include DVR replays, but a source who’s seen the Nielsen data says episodes have risen to just under 3 million viewers with delayed viewing. HBO also reruns Dragon multiple times over the course of a week on multiple HBO-branded channels, racking up hundreds of thousands of extra viewers. Bottom line: Even if the linear numbers don’t look sexy, given how much of its viewership now takes place on streaming, Nielsen’s figures mostly mesh with the cumulative data provided by HBO.

➽ Nielsen also measures streaming viewership, although it uses minutes viewed instead of people. Even so, those metrics have been positive for Dragon with the most recent episodes measured by Nielsen notching just over 1 billion weekly viewing minutes just on connected TVs. (Nielsen doesn’t include mobile and laptop viewing.) The series has regularly ranked in the company’s weekly top-five streaming titles, on par with binge releases from Netflix when you account for differences in run times. (A Netflix series such as Dahmer releases ten episodes at once vs. the weekly release pattern for HBO.)

Dragon is also doing spectacular numbers outside the States, both in countries where HBO Max has a presence as well as in markets where HBO still licenses its content to third-party streamers. In the U.K., for example, the August premiere of Dragon delivered 4.1 million viewers for the Sky Atlantic satellite channel and its NOW streaming service, per SKY and BARB, the Brit equivalent of Nielsen. That made it the biggest U.S. drama launch in Sky history, the network said. What’s more, HBO says that in the 63 European, Latin American, and Southeast Asian countries where Max or HBO Go are available, Dragon is actually outperforming the eighth season of Game of Thrones and now ranks as the most-viewed HBO title in those countries. It did not release specific viewership numbers for those markets.

➽ HBO says viewership for Dragon in the U.S. has been remarkably balanced, nearly evenly divided between men and women. Not surprisingly, the show also skews young: The median age of viewers who stream on HBO Max is 39. The cable viewership is much older (median age: 58), but even that number is younger than the typical ABC, CBS, or NBC prime-time viewer.

Dragon has been a force on social media, building interest as its season progressed. HBO says global social activity surrounding Sunday’s finale was up 30 percent from the premiere, while the show was the No. 1 TV or streaming title every week during its run, per analytics company Talkwater. Parrot Analytics, which measures consumer sentiment toward shows with its “demand index,” has reported similar results.

The collective strength of all these data points explains why Bloys has been able to exhale a bit in recent weeks. “My No. 1 feeling is relief,” he told me Wednesday, describing his mood as a mixture of happiness and pride toward “everybody involved” in making and marketing the show. “It was a phenomenal success by any metric you look at. Fans came, watched, discussed, and enjoyed.”

And yet, as Bloys’s anxiety underscores, this outcome was not predestined. Sure, there was always going to be interest in the first spinoff from the Game of Thrones universe, given how big the show had gotten by the end of its run. Getting former fans to sample the first episode or two of the new series was never expected to be an issue. Instead, the challenge was creating a series that a significant portion of that audience would accept as a worthy successor and keep watching every week.

Casey Bloys. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Courtesy of HBO Max

But while most of the entertainment industry has become adept at the art of mining one creative source for multiple prequels, sequels, and reboots (a.k.a. “franchises” and “IP”), that really wasn’t HBO’s thing — particularly back in 2016, which is when Bloys says he and his team first started giving serious consideration to the long-rumored notion of a Thrones follow-up. “We had never done a reboot to Sopranos or Six Feet Under or anything like that,” Bloys notes. Because franchises were not in HBO’s DNA, the network made a deliberate decision to take its time choosing an heir. “We didn’t go in with a foregone conclusion that we were going to do” a new series, Bloys says, echoing previous statements he has made over the years. “We had to find material that we thought was worth it.”

Nearly three years passed before HBO finally gave a greenlight to House of the Dragon, and in the interim, the network’s entire business model had been transformed. Instead of focusing on driving cable subscriptions, HBO would now become the chief creative engine for a stand-alone streaming service — HBO Max — being built by its then-corporate overlords at AT&T. More than a spinoff, Dragon was now a potent weapon in HBO’s effort to win the streaming wars.

Unlike some rival conglomerates that have chosen to make their linear assets streaming exclusives — think FX on Hulu or Paramount putting its Yellowstone spinoffs on Paramount+ — Bloys says there was never any serious discussion of putting House of the Dragon under the digital-only banner of HBO Max. “Game of Thrones is so iconic in the HBO library that I don’t think that would make sense,” he explains. And as it turns out, keeping House of the Dragon on HBO’s linear cable networks as well as HBO Max ended up a key part of the show’s formula for success. For one thing, it’s added a significant number of viewers to the overall audience tally. Bloys tells Buffering about 30 percent of Dragon’s total viewership-to-date has come from viewing on cable (including numerous reruns of the series on multiple HBO channels and DVR replays).

But even more important, by having new episodes drop on HBO each Sunday in the old Game of Thrones 9 p.m time slot, HBO motivated millions of viewers to once again make an appointment for a weekly series, rather than simply watch the show on their own timetable after it pops on to the Max app. Of the 29 million viewers each episode of Dragons attracts, about one-third — or 10 million — watch on Sunday nights, including about 7 million who stream on HBO Max. That sure beats relying solely on an algorithm to remind people to come back every week. What’s more, the social-media buzz generated by the prime-time premieres helped HBO Max break through the Peak TV clutter by turning fans into unpaid marketing evangelists for the show. Even if you watched Sunday Night Football or The Equalizer on Sundays, it was hard to miss the massive flood of posts about each Dragon episode. (This weekend’s finale trended on Twitter for a full ten hours Sunday.)

The other key decision Bloys and his team faced as they plotted how to turn House of the Dragon into a pop-culture beast was figuring out exactly when to launch the show — even if they knew there would be no perfect moment. “Wherever you go throughout the calendar year, there’s always something that’s going to be a challenge,” he says. “There’s no time where it’s easy sailing; you always have to work for it.” Still, as we saw with last spring’s content pile-up — in which dozens of high-profile series vied for the attention of viewers (and Emmy voters) over the course of two months — debuting a title at the wrong moment can do massive harm to a show’s overall prospects.

In the case of Dragons, Bloys said he had had an August 2022 premiere date in the back of his head almost from the moment the show went into production nearly two years earlier. “Having done a show like this in Game of Thrones, we had a pretty good idea of how long it was going to take, and that August airdate was the soonest we believed we could get it on the air,” he explains. “And we just wanted to get it on the platform as soon as possible, since there was no real reason to hold it … You want to get your stuff out there.” Still, HBO didn’t announce its August-premiere-date plan until this past March, a decision Bloys attributes not to secrecy or strategic plotting but rather COVID caution and not wanting to risk rescheduling a premiere because of virus-related production delays.

Of course, while HBO was waiting to see if Dragons would be able to hit what Bloys says was a long-planned August launch target, Prime Video announced a September 2 debut for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. That move meant Dragon’s first season would end up overlapping with that of another epic fantasy series, inviting lots of media comparisons between the two shows and, potentially, a battle for audience attention. Bloys, however, says the plans of other platforms ultimately had no impact on his rollout strategy. “It wasn’t anything that we seriously thought about, like, ‘Should we move it?’ You can be aware of what you’re going up against, but I don’t think that you can be afraid.”

Of course, Bloys was able to make that call knowing that, for all the things that could’ve gone wrong with House of the Dragon, the show had plenty of advantages. Despite social-media buzz about some Game of Thrones fans being spoiled on the franchise by the show’s final season, Bloys had the benefit of seeing weekly HBO Max viewing data showing Thrones remained one of the platform’s ten most-viewed titles around the world, week in and week out. “There was never any kind of discernible sort of sign that fans around the world were tired of this story,” he says. Bloys also knew that the Disneyesque combined power of the former WarnerMedia empire (HBO, TBS, TNT, CNN) and the reach of his new corporate sibling at Discovery Networks would mean Dragons would be getting a massive marketing push with tie-ins on everything from Shark Week and Food Network to AEW wrestling.

While getting House of the Dragon to take flight was not the sort of thing that risked HBO Max’s entire existence — the platform has had plenty of hits of late — it was a massively important moment for the service and for corporate owners Warner Bros. Discovery. Had things gone wrong, some metaphorical heads could’ve ended up on some metaphorical spikes. Instead, the show’s successful launch has given HBO Max a major win and a potent new weapon in the streaming wars — one with numerous benefits.

Indeed, Bloys says House of the Dragon has already had a ripple effect on Max’s overall performance. While Nielsen and HBO Max have both reported surges in viewership of Game of Thrones viewing even before the prequel premiered, Bloys tells Buffering House of the Dragon has also been driving sign-ups to the app as well as usage of the service. “I can’t overstate how important it is to have a giant tentpole like this,” Bloys says when asked what impact he’s seen so far. “Because it not only brings a lot of people in, those people then watch a lot of other things, and not just other HBO shows but library shows like Friends or Big Bang Theory and the Warner Bros. movie library. We’re trying to make people addicts, who love our product and can’t get enough of it.” And that’s exactly what has happened since House of the Dragon premiered in August, he says: “Basically any metric you look at has been very positively impacted.”

As for what’s next for the reinvigorated Thrones universe, Bloys says fans of Dragon will almost surely have to wait a while for season two. “Don’t expect it in ’23, but I think sometime in ’24,” he says, declining to get any more specific than that. “We’re just starting to put the plan together, and just like last time, there are so many unknowns. It’s not to be coy or secretive, but you don’t want to say it’s going to be ready on this date, and then you have to move it.”

As for a much expected — though definitely not green-lit — second spinoff, Bloys is even more circumspect, except to say that any new offshoot, if one happens, is unlikely to debut before House of the Dragon returns for its sophomore year. “I think probably the next thing would be season two,” he says. “I try not to comment too much on development, so there’s not a whole lot to say, other than when we find the story that George is happy with and we’re happy with, we’ll move forward.”

But assuming the right project comes together soon enough, would Bloys welcome a scenario where a second Thrones spinoff allowed HBO Max to showcase a new chapter of the Seven Kingdoms saga every year? “Well, let’s see,” he says, laughing. “That would be nice. That would be nice.”

HBO’s Big Dragon Bet Paid Off