The most recent decade of television has proven that audiences are unpredictable and a big hit does not happen overnight.
It was announced this week that Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is in the works with a creative team to restructure Amazon’s current television line up and stay on the lookout for the next Game of Thrones. If only that were as simple as it sounds.
It is likely every other network and streaming site has probably already asked the same question and reached a dead end. Predicting the success and likability of a TV show is difficult enough, and predicting what is to become one of the best and most successful shows of all time is near impossible. Even with Game of Thrones already on the air for 7 seasons, I still can’t pinpoint why exactly the world has fallen for it so hard or why I have a Targaryen banner hanging over my bed. That’s because these things are personal. Creativity is personal. And no calculation of numbers, ratings, and demographics is going to get anyone any closer to uncovering the next big hit.
That being said, Game of Thrones definitely was not a sure success. It practically had all odds against it when it first began. Sure, HBO knew it was special and had a great story with political intrigue and compelling characters, but there is no way they predicted the epic it has become.
However, taking a look back at most of the biggest shows of the past decade reveals the same. When Breaking Bad first aired on AMC, it had a difficult time attracting the large audience and fan base that it has today. Until the fifth season, the hit television show had a little less than a 2 million viewers, which contrasts largely with the 10 million viewers the show had by the time of the series finale.
Much of that has to do with its Netflix streaming, which allowed it to reach a much larger audience who may not have tuned into their cable subscriptions. But it is also simply because the show hit the right mark at the right time, not to mention that it was an incredibly well-executed story.
While Breaking Bad remains an enduring success on Netflix, even it’s spin-off show Better Call Saul has not been met with such large audiences from network ratings stand point. And Narcos, which of course is a completely different story but is basically a similar genre to that of Breaking Bad, is on Netflix and has not matched its popularity either. So replication is obviously not the answer. Both are highly regarded programs, but there is only one Breaking Bad, and its time has ended.
Other hits like The Walking Dead, another AMC program, and The Big Bang Theory on CBS, two of the largest shows currently on television in addition to Game of Thrones, both also started out pretty average. The first season of The Big Bang Theory was nowhere near the 13 million and counting that it is now, and The Walking Dead started out with a little over 5 million, which eventually transformed to over 18 million, according to a chart created by TV by the Numbers whose source is The Nielsen Company.
The spin-off series for The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon, is set to premiere this fall, while The Walking Dead almost aimlessly continues on for what feels like forever. It has, however, already experienced a bit of a drop in ratings from this most recent season, which proves that even the most successful of shows have but a short time to hold and captivate their audience. Young Sheldon seems to have some potential and has been placed against The Wonder Years based on its format and style. Although, as interesting of a character as Sheldon is, it seems the large appeal of The Big Bang Theory has largely stemmed from its ensemble cast, which has often been compared to that of Friends (not my comparison, just a comparison). Therefore, while it may experience some notable success, it most likely will not uphold BBT level success.
Honorable mentions from the past decade aside from these include shows like Mad Men from AMC (perhaps AMC does have some kind of algorithm), Downton Abbey from PBS, and the political Netflix drama House of Cards. None of which probably anticipated their large success either, in spite of their popular genres and themes. It should also be noted that other than The Walking Dead comics, the A Song of Ice and Fire books, and the original BBC series and Michael Dobbs novel that House of Cards stems from, each of these were pretty much originals, which further skews the line between the success of original work and the success of adaptations in terms of what attracts a larger audience.
From this, it’s clear that each of these shows greatly differs from the next and no one is of the same genre or even has a similar story. Therefore, it is also evident nothing is ever a sure success in television. Reboots are a different story, but there has to be enough nostalgia surrounding such shows before they can actually talk audiences back into getting wrapped up in them once again. Most recently, reboot culture has taken off in television, with the reboots of Twin Peaks, Full House, That’s So Raven, and the impending premieres of reboots for Will and Grace as well as Roseanne.
In perspective, films are actually probably a little bit easier to predict in terms of success based on numbers and marketing tactics. There are blockbusters and superhero films which are always sure to at least break even. Movies, however, also don’t have to deal with the decision to run on network, cable, premium cable, or streaming sites, but they do have to deal with ticket and digital/DVD sales.
When making this announcement to his creative team, I’m assuming Bezos did not have a reboot in mind, nor even a Game of Thrones-like fantasy epic. He just wants a program with Game of Thrones level success to grace Amazon’s presence and that is understandable, but it’s really one of those things that just happens rather than something you can construct in a lab or go on the hunt for. What we often forget is that TV is an art form, storytelling is an art form, and there cannot be several Mona Lisa’s back-to-back. As brilliant and remarkable as Game of Thrones is, and even though it has completely taken over my life, who knows what it would have been had it premiered 10 years earlier or 10 years from now. It was in the right place at the right time. It is pretty much a once-in-a-generation type thing.
So finding the next Game of Thrones will be no easy task. I’m sure it is out there somewhere as our contributor Mile Surrey has reflected upon, but searching for it amongst the plethora of stories out there makes it almost invisible. Even the Game of Thrones spin-off series that HBO is currently constructing will never probably reach the success of its original. But perhaps I will eat my words when Amazon delivers some mind-blowing epic within the next few years. Until now though, I think the consensus is that not every show with zombies or dragons or drug dealing is going to be a hit, and no studio is going to predict what it is that audiences want because as humans, we don’t know what we want until it’s right in front of us, and even then some we sometimes let it pass us by.