April 23, 2019

Winter is Coming for HBO, WarnerMedia, and Linear TV

A Deeper Dive into HBO’s Game of Thrones Season 8 Premiere Episode Viewership Figures

The final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones premiered as the most-viewed telecast in the network’s history. According to Nielsen, 17.4 million viewers watched the premiere across all HBO platforms (HBO, HBO Go, HBO Now). On its linear network, HBO viewership was 11.8 million, falling just short of the 12.1 million record achieved by the season eight season finale.

When comparing the latest Game of Thrones viewing metrics to those of traditional broadcast networks, it is important to remember that HBO’s U.S. viewer base is about half of the traditional broadcast networks, thus making the figure all that more impressive.

With most headlines touting the record-breaking audience figures, is the news all good for WarnerMedia? For the future of live television? The simple answer is no, and here’s why.

The Good News

Larger Audiences, Larger Buzz
With all of the banter about media fragmentation and loss of ratings, Game of Thrones (GoT) has consistently proven that engaging content will still garner ratings, buzz, and a huge live audience. Premiere parties and live viewing in bars and restaurants are normally the stuff of live sports, not a scripted TV drama. Notably, GoT generated some five million tweets during the premiere, making it the most-tweeted-about episode of a show ever. In fact, after the show aired, the top-10 global Twitter trends were related to the GoT premiere episode.

Importantly, not counted in the episode-one viewership statistics were the streaming services Hulu, Roku, and Amazon, not to mention an estimated 54 million illegal streams.

Spinoffs Teed Up
While GoT may be gone, HBO has wisely decided take advantage of its loyal fan base and is planning to develop four spinoff shows, only one of which is expected to make it on air. It only takes one successful spinoff to perhaps carry the franchise for another 5-10 years, so why water it down with second-rate Game of Thrones spinoffs that risk alienating its fan base? It’s not in HBO’s culture to do so.

The Bad News

The season-8 premiere of Game of Thrones was pirated 54 million times in its first 24 hours, a figure more than 3 times greater than the legal number of viewers. While many of the pirated views came from abroad, the US saw four million illegal views, a significantly disturbing figure. While we know that in India its 9.5-million pirated streams likely happened because HBO is not available in the country. Similarly, China’s 5.2-million pirated views were likely due to the version being censored. There is no easy explanation as to why there were so many illegal downloads in the United States—aside from a culture of piracy among young viewers who flock to GoT.

With But Few Exceptions, “Must See TV” is a Relic of the Past
Yes, topping 17.4 million viewers is an impressive feat for an HBO show. Looking deeper, however, the reality is that non-sports TV viewing falls far short of live sports viewing. In 2018, only 10% of the most-viewed live episodes were non-sports, a trend that we don’t expect to be reversed. With few exceptions, the concept of non-sports being “must-see TV” is a relic of the past.

HBO without Game of Thrones
While the Season-8 premiere of Game of Thrones hit it out of the park in terms of viewership, there is no other program on the network that is even remotely close to taking its place. The chart below shows the top 10 shows on HBO in the 2018/19 season.

HBO’s New Structure
Soon after the AT&T/Time Warner merger was announced, a restructure occurred placing HBO into a new division, WarnerMedia Entertainment. Robert Greenblatt, former chairman at NBC will oversee the division which will include HBO, TNT, TBS, and truTV. The resulting restructuring came on the heels of HBO CEO, Richard Plepler stepping down from his role.

Rumors abound that, within this new structure, HBO will lose much of its autonomy and creative freedom. Plepler was well respected and was responsible for green lighting hits such as Veep, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Game of Thrones. Without his presence, one is left to wonder whether the HBO of the future will in any way resemble the HBO of the recent past.

Yes, winter is coming for HBO, WarnerMedia, and for linear television as a whole. Game of Thrones will be missed by fans and HBO executives alike. The lack of any potential hit programs to take the place of Game of Thrones is highly unlikely. Moreover, the newly formed WarnerMedia Entertainment group is likely to be a hindrance to HBO taking any significant and costly creative risks to develop and foster the next disruptive mega-hit.

When looking at who viewed Game of Thrones, and when, where and how they watched, it is apparent that the age of live linear television for non-sports programming is forever in the past. As TDG has been predicting for years, we are now officially in the age of quantum viewing.

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

A 20-year veteran media executive, Rob Silvershein’s success in today’s competitive media environment is a direct result of his unique experience spanning traditional, emerging, and entrepreneurial media platforms. Mr. Silvershein has been immersed in leading edge advertising throughout his career.

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