Colatriano: The “Game of Thrones” paradigm

How does a high fantasy series attract a wide audience? Columnist Chelsea Colatriano weighs in with spoiler-free commentary.

Chelsea Colatriano

“Game of Thrones” is the second most watched original series ever on HBO only behind “The Sopranos.” Yes, the high fantasy show with dragons, it’s own fictional language (Dothraki), and many other fantastical tropes which usually appeal to the “Lord of the Rings” crowd is one of the most watched series on HBO. Ever. This show must be appealing to more than just the cosplayers, fanatics of the books and studiers of the Dothraki language.

The NumbersChelsea Colatriano

According to Time Warner, HBO’s handler, HBO’s customer base consists of about 114 million subscribers worldwide. About 30 million of those subscribers are from the U.S. With those numbers in mind, let’s take a gander over to Nielsen, the ultimate data collector/dream crusher in the U.S.

The season three finale of “Game of Thrones” aired last Sunday. According to the Nielsen ratings, about 5.39 million viewers tuned in (legally). These numbers include live viewing and same day DVR playback. That means close to 20 percent of all HBO subscribers in the U.S. tuned in to the show.

However, it’s no secret that legal TV viewing is so 2004. “Game of Thrones” must be one of the most pirated show on television. People scour to the ends of the interwebs just to find a pirated version to watch because they don’t want, or don’t have the means to, pay for an HBO subscription. Then there is HBO’s lovely streaming service aptly named HBO GO. It’s essentially Netflix for HBO TV subscribers.

Nielsen does not account for online piracy, HBO GO or DVR viewings more than a day after the live airdate. Since there is no way to measure these three factors (the ultimate downfall and unreliability of purely focusing on Nielsen ratings) we can only assume that the true audience of the “Game of Thrones” season finale was much greater than 5.39 million viewers.

I’m not naive. I know most of you probably skimmed the first section because there were too many numbers (I agree—maybe I should have put those at the end and you guys would have stuck around?). Just trust me, the numbers really are impressive. They are high for HBO original show standards. What exactly is this series doing to allow itself to be accessible to an audience, which previously may not have considered a high fantasy series, to be their new cup of tea?

The Characters

At its core, “Game of Thrones” is so successful is because it is a story about humans dealing with human problems. It’s a complex character drama that uses its fantastical setting to create both human and political allegorical meaning.

For example, (and this will as spoiler-free as possible because actually avoiding spoilers in the digital age can be compared to navigating through a minefield) Daenerys Targaryen is a teenage girl whose father, the late King of Westeros, was killed by men who wanted to take the throne. She and her older brother, Viserys, were forced into exile. Her brother’s quest for power and revenge forces her to become a chess piece in this “Game of Thrones.” Viserys marries off Daenerys to the leader of the Dothraki, a sect of nomadic people who reside east of Westeros with an impressive army, which ensures him one step closer to his ultimate goal of gaining back the throne in Westeros. Daenerys, however, is not too keen on the idea of being forced into a marriage. She is young. She struggles to find herself as a young woman and adjust to her new life with power and authority because she is now essentially the queen of the Dothraki.

Most of us don’t have our own armies to command, but we can watch Daenerys and her struggles on a regular human level. We can relate to the quest of finding oneself and we can even relate to the dreamy allure of power on a smaller scale. Even in these fantastical circumstances that we will never actually experience, we can relate to the characters in the story.

The Brand

The most important reason that the show has a wide and loyal fan base is that the creators know their story inside and out and they know their target market. In order for any business to find success they need to know whom they are selling to. The kiss of death of any brand/TV show/film/book/clothing—pretty much anything that can be bought or sold—is when the brand actively tries to appeal to everyone. Creators need to know whom they are creating for.

A brand needs to know their target market. Television production is a business. If the creators don’t know their purpose or audience—the people who are “buying” their product, both in a literal and figurative sense, the product will fail. The lack of direction or focus will be disorienting to a buyer/viewer. Seriously, have you tried walking through a Sears? Or sitting through an episode of the short-lived “How to Live with Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life)”? It’s painful. Neither knows what exactly they want to be as a brand. The only difference is that Sears keeps getting second chances at life.

Most shows that are cancelled after airing four or five episode are cancelled for this reason—they don’t have a target audience and therefore connect with no one. However, “Game of Thrones” is hyper-focused. This intense focus is aided by having to adapt the TV series from the popular series of novels called “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R. R. Martin—who also serves as a co-executive producer.

Martin started out as a TV writer so his style of writing definitely lends itself to be adaptable. His style of narrative writing is quite episodic given his background. The show has a distinct direction because it has the books as a framework and it exudes confidence in that direction.

I’d say a $50 million dollar/season budget exhibits HBO’s confidence in the product they are selling. Networks, instead of investing money in their shows to yield a better product, use minimal amounts of money per episode only increasing the budget once good Nielsen ratings are in. This is a low self-confidence problem. Maybe all of the network execs should go to group therapy together?

Audiences consciously and subconsciously respond to confidence in a product. “Game of Thrones” and the HBO execs are using the principles of brand management to their advantage. A combination of great brand management and character driven stories help to suspend disbelief in the audience for an hour and transport them to an unfamiliar world, providing viewers a completely understandable political and social allegory.

I’d venture to say it was a proud moment in the writer’s room when they found out that they were the second most watched cable show  on TV. That’s the ultimate compliment.

Chelsea Colatriano can be reached at 

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