After eight seasons and 47 Emmy Awards, HBO’s Game of Thrones aired its series finale Sunday night. Since premiering in 2011, the show has become a cultural penomenon drawing tens of millions of viewers each week.
We checked in with Media Studies Associate Professor Rick Stevens, a Game of Thrones fan himself, to learn more about the show's cultural impact and get tips for avoiding spoilers.
What has been the cultural impact of Game of Thrones over the last eight years?
Game of Thrones tapped into a large number of fantasy fan networks and built a large mass audience for its showings. The blending of several different genres in the show attracts interest from a broad range of interests, and the high production values and high-quality acting allowed the show to explore a lot of issues related to power, politics, social justice, gender and race representation. Seeing the watch party videos with people gathered in pubs and theaters cheering at the show as if it were a sporting event shows the broad popularity and enthusiasm for this show. It’s easily one of the more talked about cultural events in the past couple of years.
When was the last time a TV show captured the public’s attention to this degree?
Well, the thing about this question is how television is so different than in years past. For HBO, the last show to command this much attention was probably The Sopranos. But in terms of raw audience, The Big Bang Theory is drawing more viewers as it winds down. But what’s different between traditional broadcast shows and these more recent appointment-viewing shows is the fan discourse fueled through social media.
For Game of Thrones, participating in the reaction media that quickly spreads across social media platforms during or immediately after programming is a key part of the participatory feel to a fan. Within seconds, reaction posts and videos flow into people's networks, within an hour memes begin to shape. It's been a wild ride and is clearly one of the most important of the cable appointment-viewing programs of its era. More people watched The Sopranos, but the extension of Game of Thrones fan discourse into social media spaces and conventions has been something unique, most like what we see with fandoms built around films.
The Game of Thrones audience is passionate and visible. In terms of the fan energy, I think The Walking Dead in it’s middle seasons was the last big moment like this for a television fanbase. Eighteen million viewers is a large audience by modern standards, but the fragmented nature of broadcast, cable and streaming platforms means that there are at any one time a few different shows resonating with different audiences. Game of Thrones is something special not merely because it has a large audience, but because of how that audience behaves and expresses itself before, during, and after episodes are released.
With the popularity of streaming services and binge watching, will ever be another show with as much “appointment-viewing” appeal?
I think so. Shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos create a lot more value for subscriber networks than regular broadcast television. Fan discussion is a large part of the draw for shows like that, which include large worlds to explore in addition to character development and structure.
So while there is no obvious successor to Game of Thrones at the moment, with so many shows being optioned around comic books, fantasy novels and science fiction works, it's probably a matter of time before the next transcendent series captures enough of a similar audience to create the cultural power we've been observing with Game of Thrones. I'll be intrigued to see what series catches fire next.
Westworld has a large audience for HBO (10 to 12 million), but that is still significantly less than Game of Thrones, and it’s unlikely that large numbers of fans will transfer between the two shows. HBO will be bringing several new series to screen soon, including shows like Watchmen, but it remains to be seen if any shows can have the broad appeal that Game of Thrones did. Content providers will likely increase the amount of network programming that appeals to tighter demographics (for example, Disney Plus is offering a wide offering of new programming to try to capture the audience of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films), but whether any of those programs capture the attentions of multiple networks of viewers at the same time remains to be seen.
Game of Thrones combines several different interests all at once: the horror elements, the fantasy elements, the high drama elements. There are actually quite a few genres in play with one another in the show. Most shows are more tightly focused, to attract a smaller but dependable audience.
Game of Thrones deals with some pretty heavy topics. How do themes like the show’s treatment of women impact society?
The show has definitely driven some strong reactions on several sides of issues of race and gender. In particular, the decision early on to use adult film stars to portray sexuality has brought some attention to issues of representation of women. Several main character actors refused to participate in the kinds of scenes the earlier seasons presented, but even the recent nude scenes involving Maisie Williams drew a lot of commentary (though the actress is 22 and the character is 18, there were quite a few fans concerned about someone so young appearing naked onscreen).
But on the other side, the show features powerful women who use their cunning and authority to exert their will on their world. Though the show reflects the misogynistic environment of it’s source material (the book itself invokes 15th-century English historical events, and that ties the narrative to the cultural norms of that period), female characters are able to act both within and outside those constraints to affect their society.
Like many long-ranging texts, Game of Thrones provokes discussions of norms, justice, power and human nature. In that sense, it is the site of profound cultural work for millions of people, as they react and respond to the representations presented each week.
Is everybody going to cancel their HBO subscriptions now that the show has ended?
Of course. Just as many people cancel Starz when Outlander airs its season finale. Many viewers subscribe to premium content through apps in their streaming services, so adding, canceling and swapping are increasingly common around the release and conclusion of popular content offerings. I doubt HBO is worried overmuch about the cancellations after Game of Thrones concludes, they always have multiple fan audiences engaged on smaller scales with programming. Diversity of content and multiple fan networks are more valuable in the big picture than single smash hit programs. Of course, it’s always best to have both.
What’s the best way to avoid spoilers if we couldn't watch the finale on Sunday?
Avoid social media. I have a 9-year-old, so I often watch Game of Thrones two hours after it premieres. Those two hours are difficult, avoiding Facebook and Twitter, glancing at my phone nervously when it vibrates. There are people I can’t talk to during that period, and there are people the following few days I need to avoid to give them a chance to catch up on viewing.
Unfortunately, there aren’t firm norms around spoiling culture, and the best policy is to avoid spaces where culture is discussed if one wants to preserve the surprises related to initial viewings.