Game of Thrones Audience Appeal
The Enduringness of Story
About 20 years ago, I sat down separately with several film and television development executives in Los Angeles to talk about their aesthetic priorities and what influenced their decisions to greenlight a project. I wrote the findings of the interviews in my book, For Entertainment Purposes Only? (Lexington Books, 2000). Each person gave me permission to disclose his or her company’s names because it was essential to lend credence to the views of such influential leaders in the business.
Among the people I spoke with were development executives from HBO and October Films, the latter company went defunct in 1999 and now exists as Focus Features. I flew out to Los Angeles to join them for lunch after each kindly responded to my letter (sent via regular mail) to interview them about their work. It was an engaging hour with each. They helped me understand the elements they look for in a film and their rationale for them, as well as some of the challenges they face in the review and selection process.
The business priorities of both people were consistent with respect to the goal for a film project, mainly that is is profitable as measured by premium channel subscribers and modest ticket sales, respectively. They also noted that generating "buzz" was important, Hollywood’s term for ‘talk’ and media attention about a project. This helped the project's popularity and increased its chances of critical acclaim in the form of awards and positive reviews. A strong consistency in my talks with all of the people I spoke with, including Smoke Signals (1998) writer/director Chris Eyre, was remaining true to the values of what was then considered independent film.
Also described as artsy works with budgets under $20 million, independent film carries the tacit mandate of telling intimate stories with deep characters portrayed with strong acting. These projects differ from major (or mainstream) studio productions in several respects. Mainstream studios typically incur high production costs, emphasize splash over story substance, use high‑profile actors to carry the film, and are motivated to maximize ticket sales at the box office or rake in advertising revenue on television. In short, the focus of major studios is on the commercialization of the films they produce and distribute, measuring a project’s success in dollars more so than accolades.
Of course, there are exceptions in that many mainstream films are simply great, with strong stories and acting such as Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox’s Titanic (1997) and New Line Cinema’s Lord of the Rings (2001), both high‑grossing and award‑winning films. But exceptions notwithstanding, mainstream film contrasts sharply with independent film, which endeavors to stay true to the art form by consistently telling compelling stories with high-quality cinematic presentations.
Examples of 'indie' films in the '90s were Miramax’s Smoke Signals (1998), October Films’ The Apostle (1997) and Fox Searchlight’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999), all of which won multiple independent film awards and the last even won an Oscar for best acting. Recently, films such as Annapurna Pictures’ If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) garnered Oscar and Golden Globe wins for acting in 2019, and A24’s Moonlight (2016) won the Oscar for best film in 2017. All of these films fit the mold of indie as defined years ago, but there is a spirited debate occurring in the industry today over what indie is.
The indie debate concerns what constitutes independent film and whether budget should factor into a project’s classification as indie or mainstream. Admitting my bias here, I agree that budget should not be a factor in making this determination, and instead the emphasis remain on the story and the quality of its presentation. I will save these arguments for another day. But it is worth mentioning that none of the arguments considers where the original programming of premium and streaming channels fits, whether in the form of movies or television series. At this point, even this doesn't matter, though. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, any arguments that assert where these platforms belong in the schema would be moot, now that the channels have become vessels for distributing theatrical releases of films of all types. It will be interesting to see if this changes as the public's sensitivity to news reports on COVID-19 diminishes.
Years ago, HBO’s original programming was considered independent because it adhered to the indies' tacit mandates which required: that the film be produced independently of major ones; and that besides profit, the measures for success must lie heavily in the project's critical acclaim. Today, like HBO, companies like Netflix and AMC not only develop award winning movies, but also television series. Their success is measured in the indie tradition of awards and of course, channel subscribers rather than commercial advertising dollars. Because of this differentiation, we consider original programming to be of the indie mold.
So, in addition to assessing just how well independent studios have remained true to the sector’s values, I wondered if the aesthetic priorities of the industry 20 years ago reflect the aesthetic tastes of the audiences they seek to attract today. If audience preferences align with studio priorities, it would suggest that it is the appeal of a story that endures, and audiences simply thirst for a good cinematic presentation of it. Given this, the story’s underlying elements could offer insights into what can potentially predict the success of a film or television project.
Back in the Day
Twenty years ago, DVRs had not yet arrived; VCRs were the recording devices of the day. Cable TV was limited, with just a handful of premium movie channels like HBO and TMC. The worldwide web was on the cusp of exploding into homes and moving into mainstream prominence. Mobile phones were quite literally just a phone, not the handheld microcomputers that we use today to manage our everyday lives and stay in constant touch with friends and family through texts, emojis, social media posts, and instant photos. So, with the technological revolution we have experienced since the turn of the century, have audiences’ cinematic preferences for independent works changed too? This is the question I wanted to explore, and I designed a survey on the HBO series, Game of Thrones (2011) to help me with some answers on this.
Described in part as a fantasy drama, Game of Thrones (GoT) is a television series set in medieval times about a battle over seven kingdoms. The first seven seasons depicted battles among the various factions leading up to the showdown in the final season, which premiered April 14, 2019. In addition to war, the show integrates elements of politics, gender, race, class, and age. GoT’s U.S. viewership quadrupled over its seven seasons, growing from about 2.5 to more than 10 million on average per episode. By comparison, The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007) series finale drew 11.9 million and The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006) pulled approximately 8 million viewers on average.
GoT generated a lot of buzz over its first seven years, making it arguably the most talked about series, with cultural critics, pundits, psychologists, and marketers weighing in on its value and offering explanations for its appeal. With these achievements, it can be argued that GoT is an outlier because of its wild popularity. I can counter that it is because of its reach that the show warrants a teasing out of the elements that appealed to so many people. In short, GoT seemed to exemplify viewers’ aesthetic tastes, making it a very appropriate choice for the study.
The online survey was administered over two days, March 27-28, 2019, prior to the release of season 8. It consisted of 11 questions posed to 540 individuals across the country who were 18 or older, asking about their level of interest in the season 8 premiere of GoT. With a response rate of 89%, the survey contained 482 responses and a completion rate of 86%. The sample yielded a margin of error of +/-4.6% at a 95% confidence level.
Sixty-two percent of respondents indicated they were somewhat to very likely to watch the season 8 premiere. Of these, 53% were women. People ages 45-54 made up the largest segment at 28%. Each segment of 18-24 and 25-34 year-olds comprised 19%, for a total of 38%. The respondents’ ages are consistent with those noted by Variety, which identified the key demographic for GoT as 18 to 49 years old. Together, they make up more than 70% of the sample.
I was unable to find a mainstream television series that matches GoT’s ratings and breadth of appeal across age groups. Most have a younger or older audience, not both. The series boasts an IMDB rating of 9.5 on a 10‑point scale! ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-2020) comes to mind when considering a mainstream show that rates high among 21-34 year-olds in particular. The action packed, science fiction series had a rating of 7.5 as it approached its eighth season, with approximately 2.3 million viewers. It was twice nominated for an Emmy in the visual effects category only, suggesting that story and depth of characters do not explain the show’s appeal. Instead, its staying power is its ability to draw advertising revenue and its syndication potential.
On the older side of the age band is ABC’s Castle (2009-2016). The underrated show is about a writer who partners with a female detective to develop material for his novels, but he falls in love with her along the way. The series ran for eight seasons, and won Emmys for music, People’s Choice awards for Favorite TV Drama, and TV Guide awards for acting. A high quality show with an IMDB rating of 8.5, it pulled strongly among 45-64 year olds. Despite being canceled more than five years ago, the show still enjoys syndication and is quite popular. But in short, nothing comes close to the broad appeal of the Game of Thrones series.
More than 3/4th of survey respondents indicated they had at least some college education. Interestingly, Game of Thrones is often described as one of the smartest shows on television, with Walton, a writer for Forbes's, commenting that it was: “[So] smart, in fact, that it can be hard to follow.” While the educational attainment of the largest audience segment in the sample has some college level education, a fifth of viewers indicated they have attained something less. This suggests that the show’s audience is not monolithic and has something for everyone.
The show's appeal is further indicated across income groups. Just under 40% earn $35,000-$74,999. One quarter earn $75,000-$149,999. Thus, the audience is diverse even across income. Together, the sample’s demographics point to Game of Thrones as having a very broad appeal, spanning age bands, education segments, income, and in grabbing the interest of both men and women.
The critical acclaim of cinematic work is one standard of measure for assessing a film or television production. It manifests in awards and positive reviews that essentially validate several elements: the quality of the story being told; depth of the characters; and strength of the acting. It stands to reason then that a successful production is one that garners a lot of prestigious awards.
Awards are the film and television industry’s nod to the strength of a show or movie’s critical elements. GoT won numerous prestigious awards over its first seven seasons: a Golden Globe for acting and multiple Emmy awards for Outstanding TV Drama Series, acting, production design, music composition, and visual effects just to name a few. The show’s accolades are reminiscent of drama series like AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013), Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2017- ), and ABC’s Scandal (2012-2018).
Like GoT, Breaking Bad and The Handmaid’s Tale won multiple Golden Globes for Best TV Series and best acting performances. These along with Scandal, won Emmys in all or some categories, including Outstanding Drama Series, writing, acting, cinematography, production design, and others. Baffling is a notable series like HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008), which was only twice‑nominated for Emmys in writing and received no Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for acting. The show’s IMDB rating is 9.3 out of 10, second in the aforementioned only to GoT which has a 9.5. One journalist described it as “the greatest television [program] ever made.” The explanations for this absence of tangible critical acclaim for The Wire is still being debated more than a decade after the show’s series finale. Nonetheless, accolades such as these attest to the critical acclaim of these shows. But still, do the tastes of viewers support the industry’s notions about GoT?
The most interesting and poignant finding from the survey is how respondents described GoT’s appeal for them. Based on the frequency in their responses to the question regarding what they find appealing in the Game of Thrones, the single, most prominent element that grabs their interest is 'characters.' Blake, a writer with CNN noted that critics often laud the complexity of the characters in GoT. Arya’s character, for example, defies her expected role to marry royalty and instead becomes a fighter determined to avenge her family. And Daenerys, who began as a victim and over time built an army and nurtured dragons, now wields undeniable power.
The depth of the characters and their transformation over the series resonate with the experiences and aspirations of many everyday people who strive for strength and courage. There are also other character elements that we recognize in ourselves, such as: the cunningness of Littlefinger; the immaturity of Joffrey; sadly, the brutality of Ramsay; and even the gentility, loyalty, and empathy displayed by Tyrion and Jorah. Viewers relate to these in terms of what they see, hear and in some cases experience every day. Thus, the characters in the series display both broad and deep ranges of humanity, reinforcing the idea that the show has something that appeals to everyone.
Second in text frequency are ‘storyline’ and ‘story,’ indicating their high importance for respondents. GoT is a story of race, gender, politics, and the wielding of political and military power to conquer. Examples of these are: the ruthlessness practiced by those in power to keep it and gain more; dark skinned people being brought out of bondage by a blond, white woman; young and older women occupying seats of power like Sansa and Cersei, respectively. Viewers can connect with these elements in large part because they are relevant to present-day issues and events.
As I wrote in my book, cinema has historically been tied to the events of the day so it can resonate with people’s lives during that period. For example, a flood of war and comedy productions are released during times of military conflict, the former to reflect reality and the latter to provide an escape from its horror. Recently, Aaron Sorkin, a writer of The West Wing, noted that the series almost did not air because the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke soon after the show was penned. Said Sorkin, “[We knew] we simply can’t do this right now. People will giggle.” Today, strong political divisions and race and gender issues are playing out on television news programs and in social media, making the GoT storyline especially palpable.
We found no major differences in the show’s appeal for men and women. Both emphasize characters and story as appealing elements, highlighting drama, action, acting, fantasy, and intrigue as important but relatively minor. The notable difference between the two is the appearance of ‘nudity’ for men and ‘love’ for women. But even these do not come close to the two primary draws of characters and story.
Escapism and Anticipation
‘Action,’ ‘plot,’ ‘dragons,’ ‘fantasy’ are also highlighted by respondents, so it is evident that the level of escapism provided by GoT is quite high. Forty‑one percent planned to decorate their homes and/or wear GoT‑themed costumes for the viewing, which exemplifies the degree to which entertainment in general provides for escape from everyday routines. With sports, some fans wear jerseys, guzzle hats and paint the team’s colors on their faces to immerse themselves into the event. With cinema, some viewers carry props and don period clothing and costumes imitating those worn in a film or show. Star Wars and GoT are just two examples of this.
More than half of respondents who indicated they were likely to watch the premiere planned to watch it with friends and/or family, and many were preparing for its airing much like football fans do for the Big Game. They shared plans to prepare meals, and 4 out of 10 indicated they were somewhat likely to very likely to purchase a big screen television for the event – a fairly common phenomenon for the Big Game. A handful indicated they would binge on the previous episodes to build excitement for what’s to come in the season 8 premiere.
In addition to show loyalty, the constant media buzz about GoT spurs its anticipation even before trailers of the premieres are released. For example, a simple search of Game of Thrones articles yielded more than 209 million results. Even if half of these were duplicates, the sheer number demonstrates the wild popularity and interest in the show by journalists, scholars and viewers. By comparison, a search of The West Wing yielded 126 million and AMC’s Mad Men (8 seasons) 150 million. GoT‑related publications were exceeded only by the AMC series, Breaking Bad (5 seasons), which had 241 million hits, ABC’s Scandal (7 seasons) 336 million and HBO’s The Wire (5 seasons) with a whopping 389 million. College courses have been developed to explore the cultural success of GoT as well as The Wire, and many academics have commented on the appeal of Scandal.
The findings here suggest that the tastes of today’s audience do indeed align with those of Hollywood’s independent sector of yesterday, and that story is the point of intersection. The multigenerational appeal reinforces this along with the use of terms like ‘characters,’ ‘story,’ ‘storyline,’, ‘action,’ and ‘plot,’ to pinpoint the elements of the show that account for their interest and enjoyment. Viewers simply have a strong affinity for the characters depicted in the show and the quality of the story unfolding on the screen, which is consistent with the aesthetic priorities articulated by the development executives I spoke with 20 years ago.
We can say then that these qualities are enduring aspects of a cinematic work in that they stand the test of time. Then, now and very likely in the future of cinema, these elements will be the factors by which the potential viewership and critical acclaim of an independent film or television series are predicted. The fact that many viewers can enjoy these original programs (at times commercial‑free) and in the comfort of their own homes with family and friends is a bonus.
Indie contrasts sharply with mainstream works that pull in audiences with the implied promise of adrenaline rush through action, splash, quick cuts, brief interactions among characters, popular music genres, often cartoonish characters, and recognizable actors with fantastic bodies who appear in the presentation. This strategy has worked for the majors over the past 60 years or so, and particularly since the advent of home computers, mobile phones, DVRs, and DVD players. These technologies have made movie tickets easy to buy and shows easy to record, rent, and even purchase. While many of these works are truly enjoyable, indie film and television series offer a different cup of tea. And it is clear from this analysis that its appeal exists across multiple segments of people—and that story and characters are the threads that connect them.
(Originally published April 2019)