Fans of dragons, political machinations and bad wigs are in for a treat this week. The “Game of Thrones” prequel series “House of the Dragon” is set to premier on Sunday, three years after its parent show ended its bloody eight-season run on HBO.
But can HBO replicate the unprecedented success of “Game of Thrones”?
The answer to that question automatically comes with qualifiers. Although it will likely be compared to its predecessor, “House of the Dragon” enters a completely different television landscape than the one that existed in 2011 when “Game of Thrones” first exploded on HBO.
At the time, “Game of Thrones” was a rarity: a big budget fantasy show with a rich world, well-written characters and almost universal appeal. It was a monocultural success, dominating the water cooler conversation every Monday. But times have changed, and the concept of the TV monoculture has been on the verge of extinction since “Game of Thrones” ended in 2019–with a few exceptions.
“This is the first time we’re really going to see this: an attempt of what took advantage of a TV monoculture in a time when we’re not all tuning in at the same time to watch something together,” says Steve Granelli, an assistant teaching professor in communication studies at Northeastern.
Since the show went off the air, several streaming services, including HBO Max, have spawned, leading to more options in the era of “Peak TV.” The result is a more fractured television viewing experience, a series of walled gardens tucked away behind subscription costs, with fewer universal, monocultural sensations like “Game of Thrones” and many more niche hits.
“There are very real barriers to ubiquity that would not have existed 15 to 20 years ago,” Alison Herman, staff writer at The Ringer, says. “There are five or six streaming services that people may or may not be subscribing to and cost money, and that money adds up. It just means it’s very hard to even know that someone you’re talking to has the means to even access a show that you may be excited about.”
Viewing habits have also changed. Now, only a few shows, including HBO’s “Succession,” are able to capture the hype of an HBO Sunday night, when watching an episode the moment it airs is vital to being part of the cultural conversation. Granelli recalls splitting the cost of an HBO subscription with his graduate school friends, who would come over every Sunday to watch “Game of Thrones.”
“If it is a fervent ‘we are all watching it at the same time’ [experience] with ‘House of the Dragon’ fans to the point where people they interact with cannot interact with them unless they’ve seen ‘House of the Dragon,’ then it’s going to develop into a more monoculture-style show,” Granelli says. “It’s likely going to be a lot more based on community and relationships than it is any single one time that we’re all going to watch together.”
When a show does become a hit and enters the cultural zeitgeist, it is rarely the kind of big budget, highly touted project that streaming companies have been chasing in the wake of “Game of Thrones.” Netflix’s South Korean drama “Squid Game” maintained near ubiquity online and in the awards circuit. And “The Bear,” a small drama about a famous chef returning to his family’s restaurant in Chicago released by FX on Hulu this year, was a word-of-mouth sensation.
“That kind of organic connection really showed me that it was successful, but frankly success can mean so many different things now,” Herman says. “Often, I will hear nothing in advance about a show, and then it will be everywhere. Sometimes I will hear a lot about a show, and then it doesn’t seem to take off.”
The decline of the TV monoculture means there is no longer the kind of large-scale community building and cultural conversation that defined “Game of Thrones” when it was on the air. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Granelli says. Instead, there are now smaller communities built around niche shows that end up creating a more defined sense of identity than a show like “Game of Thrones” could ever conjure.
Television show creators also now have more avenues to get their ideas greenlighted. The early eagerness of streaming companies to flood the global marketplace with content helped open the doors for artists of different backgrounds and perspectives to put their creative visions on screen.
“It is always good for more artists to be able to make a living and for more artists to express themselves,” Herman says. “I think the past 10 to 15 years of TV have seen some real creative strides taken that I hope will be able to continue as we are entering a period of contraction.”
But, like a dragon flying low over King’s Landing, “Game of Thrones” as a monocultural sensation still looms large in the industry. In an industry driven by big swings and known intellectual property, there has been no shortage of attempts to take the throne left vacant by HBO’s fantasy hit. Netflix has “The Witcher;” Apple TV+ has the sweeping sci-fi epic “Foundation” and Amazon has “Wheel of Time” as well as its upcoming mega-budget show, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.”
However, none of them have been able to fill the monocultural void left by “Game of Thrones.” So, can “House of the Dragon” succeed where so many others have failed, in an industry that has evolved so much since “Game of Thrones” first aired? Having seen the series premiere, Herman is hopeful.
“I think there is just a baked in level of interest that I think will get people to check out the pilot,” Herman says. “I know that I was very eager to see more and definitely got the sense that they understood what made ‘Game of Thrones’ work in a way that others didn’t. You would kind of hope they would because they made ‘Game of Thrones.’”
For Granelli, the show’s ability to hit it big with viewers won’t come down to a massive budget or stellar special effects but instead what hooked people on the show in the first place.
“If it reaches the level of a ‘Succession,’ it’s not going to be because of some sprawling kind of story with really expensive sets,” he says. “It’s going to be because of a great story with great characters and great acting.”