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Ending Game of Thrones Cost HBO Half Their Subscribers

No, not in the way you think


Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen looking pissed in that scene (you know the one) from the final season of HBO's Game of Thrones.

When Game of Thrones ended, the discourse was deafening. A rushed conclusion that failed to live up to the high standards set by the show’s stellar earlier seasons left fans disappointed and jaded, as the series veered between obvious fan service and disappointing character arcs that left many fan favorites dead after nonsensical choices, with many a plot thread dangling. The end of Game of Thrones was a rough time for fans, but the fallout proved an even rougher time for HBO, who saw their subscriber numbers plummet after their flagship series concluded.

According to a Variety round-up of the ratings winners and losers of 2020, “Without Game of Thrones, HBO saw more than half of its adults 18-49 linear audience disappear in 2020.” That’s a huge loss and it’s very tempting to simplistically say “well, the Game of Thrones finale sucked so much that millions of people dumped HBO,” but that’s not really what happened. I think it’s more likely that a huge fantasy/genre series ended and HBO had nothing comparable waiting to replace it.

Author Rebekah Weatherspoon hit the nail right on the head with this tweet:

Weatherspoon is exactly right. While HBO has a lot of great shows, they filled their big prestige Game of Thrones spot on Sundays after that show ended with the second, rather mediocre season of Big Little Lies. Those are two very different shows. Then we got Succession in there, which had an incredible second season, but it was nowhere near the cultural behemoth that Thrones was and while the backstabbing, manoeuvering and family drama was on par with Thrones, it certainly wasn’t fantasy entertainment. People want genre and they want BIG genre. For a decade Game of Thrones was the most pirated show, and now it’s been replaced by The Mandalorian.

This isn’t to say that HBO was lacking in genre fare. Season 3 of Westworld was high brow sci-fi rather than fantasy, but it was also a bit dense and philosophical. And again: no dragons. His Dark Materials was given a Monday slot, rather than the Thrones Sunday, uh, throne. His Dark Materials hasn’t connected with audiences the way Game of Thrones did. (Personally, I found the pilot boring and checked out, though I know it has many fans) and since that series will end after the third season, it won’t have a chance to develop an audience like Game of Thrones did.

Game of Thrones may have been the last great “water cooler” show, and its end may have represented the end of monoculture in general: the idea of “must-see TV” that we were all talking about, all around the world, but I do think that it was a stumble for HBO not to have some sort of fantasy series that ticked some of the same boxes as Thrones waiting to pick up the audience that came to the show for spectacle, fantasy, epic storytelling and, uh, let’s call it “mature storytelling.”

This is why, despite the stumbles in Game of Thrones final seasons, HBO is going ahead with a spin-off, House of the Dragon, because I think they see this type of entertainment as something they need, and they aren’t patient enough to re-build an audience with a new property in an over-saturated market for television. That in and of itself is a shame because as much as HBO needs something like Game of Thrones to pick up that slack … I don’t think they need more Westeros.

For this same reason though I think other platforms are leaning into fantasy properties trying to catch that Thrones audience. As noted, Disney is doing it with The Mandalorian and Amazon hopes to do the same with The Wheel of Time and The Lord of The Rings. For Netflix, The Witcher has filled the void.

The lesson here is really that nerds and nerdy content …. rule. Genre isn’t niche, it’s huge, and networks need to see it as a product people want because it is fantasy, not just in spite of that.

(image: HBO)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.