Believe it or not, the biggest show on television once had almost all odds against it.
Today, we know Game of Thrones as one of the most watched shows on TV. While so many millions of viewers watch it now, and those who don’t have at least probably heard of it, the show was not a sure success in the beginning. It may currently be HBO’s most popular show of all time, but when deciding whether or not to produce it, HBO took a gamble in many ways. Sure, dragons and ice zombies may be flowing into the mainstream today, but it is easy to forget that they weren’t always so widely popular and that at one point the thought of Game of Thrones as one of the most successful shows on TV was unthinkable.
To understand the true strides Game of Thrones has made on television within the past six years, establishing some background regarding the creation of the novels and the show itself is necessary. When George R.R. Martin first published A Game of Thrones in 1996, he wasn’t expecting that a studio would offer him a movie or TV deal. Martin had worked in television before, writing episodes for Beauty and the Beast and The Twilight Zone, and he experienced first hand all of the constraints that came with on screen productions. Therefore, he wanted A Song of Ice and Fire to be something he could make as long and as gory as he wished, without worrying about budgets and run times. Martin had also written a few other fantasy novels before ASOIAF but wanted to write a series where he could truly expand on world building and dive into all of the gritty reality of human nature. So he wrote A Game of Thrones, and then published A Clash of Kings in 1998, planning to write a trilogy, which later turned into planning a series of 7 novels.
During this time, various people had met with him to discuss possible on screen adaptations, but Martin declined their offers, knowing that if he were to accept a feature film deal, he would never be able to give the majority of the series adequate screen time while still staying true to the story. And for television, he thought, there was too much sex and violence. The only on screen adaptation he wanted was one where the story could be told as it was, for all that it was. So from the very start, a portrayal of A Game of Thrones on screen was not much more than an unfathomable idea. That is until HBO of course.
By now, the infamous meeting between David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and Martin is well known in the GoT fan community. After about 5 hours of discussing creating a TV show from the ASOIAF series, Martin finally gave his permission to Weiss and Benioff after they answered his question as to who Jon Snow’s mother is. Their answer remains unknown (although after season 6 we assume they guessed correctly), but after this meeting, they pitched the idea to HBO who then bought the rights to the books and planned on producing a pilot episode. However, it was not smooth sailing from there.
There was still a big story to produce, lots of casting to do, and many effects to create. There was also a pilot episode that was made before the actual one we know today, which apparently was a disaster and never made it to air. And according to Benioff and Weiss in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, they had to ask HBO for more money to create “The Battle of the Blackwater” episode in season two as it was truly meant to be. They may have had a pretty decent budget for an up and coming show, but this need for more money shows that by the second season, the show was already exceeding monetary constraints due to its intricate and expanded story. While the budget may be large and seemingly infinite now, it is evident that in the beginning, the show had to create a lot with a little.
Episode one of season one premiered on April 17, 2011. The premiere received about 2.2 million viewers, which slightly grew to a little over 3 million viewers by the time of the season finale. So, although those are far from the high numbers Game of Thrones episodes reach today, that is still a moderate amount of growth for its first season. When the show first premiered, however, it was up against various shows of which many would consider some of the best television shows of this generation. This included Boardwalk Empire and True Blood from HBO, and Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead from other channels. Of course, they all did not air on the same nights at the same time, but those are still some heavy hitters to even be compared to. Especially during award season.
It was not until 2015 when the show was in its 5th season, that Game of Thrones won in the Outstanding Drama Series category, though Peter Dinklage did win in the Supporting Actor category in 2011. That being said, it was nominated every year since it first aired, and broke a record last year by bumping its number of awards to 38 which beat out Fraiser’s record of 37. However, it is clear that right from the start, Game of Thrones had to work to prove itself in the world of quality television.
Aside from being up against such successful shows, another way in which the odds were against Game of Thrones was in part because of its fantasy genre. Before it premiered in 2011, few fantasy shows were a true success. There had been many successful science fiction shows and supernatural programs, and the world had just experienced its vampire craze, but few true fantasy shows with aspects like dragons, sword fights, and magic had found success.
Similar series that have been compared to Game of Thrones like The Tudors and Rome, which had their run before GoT never made it past season three. Others like Outlander and Vikings, which came after Game of Thrones, have had decent success, but nothing as widely talked about. The closest show to GoT regarding success and ratings is The Walking Dead. However, the two are not alike in story, and Walking Dead is more of an apocalyptic genre rather than Game of Thrones like fantasy. Although, winter is here and ice zombies are coming so maybe eventually that will change.
In one sense Game of Thrones being on HBO was at one point possibly a hindrance for the show’s success. Attracting viewers to premium cable television with the allure of one show (assuming nothing else on HBO had appealed to them already) especially during a time when people were starting to the cut the cord and strictly watch streaming platforms, was a rough sell. Or a rough sell for the time. Now with the creation of HBO Now especially, and free trials and cancellation periods, many people began subscribing for the purpose of watching the show, once it began to gain more traction. Word of mouth in this case helped. This is not including DVD sales as well. That being said, only HBO really could have given GoT the opportunity to grow as it has and be told as it was meant to be. By season four, the show had beat The Sopranos as HBO’s most watched show of all time.
With the season 7 premiere this past Sunday, Game of Thrones has continued to rise in viewership each season. At this point, everything else on right now seems almost incomparable to GoT regarding popularity. No matter how popular it may be today though, it must always be remembered that Game of Thrones is truly unique in its success and that it was not an over-night triumph for HBO. Game of Thrones will go down in history for the accomplishments it has made regarding its genre, its compelling story, and its role in this new era of quality television that we are currently experiencing.