It came as a surprise to no one to learn that HBO broke ratings records with its “Game of Thrones” Season 8 premiere on Sunday night. HBO says the episode brought in 17.4 million total viewers, an all-time record for any HBO telecast. That beats the 16.1 million viewers for the Season 7 premiere, and the 16.9 million viewers for the Season 7 finale.
Of the total viewers, 11.8 million watched the premiere live, and the rest either watched a re-air or streamed the episode over HBO Go or HBO Now. HBO says Sunday was its “largest night of streaming activity ever.”
Samba TV, which measures TV streaming patterns, notes that it saw a “huge spike” in streaming of “Game of Thrones” beginning in February of this year, as people began to re-watch past seasons of the show to prepare for the final season.
All of this looks like great reasons for HBO to celebrate. But the massive success of “Game of Thrones” also represents a looming problem for HBO and for every other TV creator, from cable networks to pay channels to streaming platforms: Where’s the next “Game of Thrones?” Once the series ends its run, there is arguably no current running show that comes anywhere close to rivaling its popularity.
“Game of Thrones” has been HBO’s flagship series for more than five years—more than that, in more recent years the show’s season premieres and finales have been major cultural events. AMC hasn’t had anything like that since “Breaking Bad” ended in 2013. (“The Walking Dead” ratings plummeted in its final two seasons.) Netflix hasn’t had it since “House of Cards” was in its prime in 2014. (You could perhaps argue that the instant popularity of “Stranger Things” when it premiered in 2016 felt similar.) Showtime has “Billions,” but its reach is nowhere near that of “Game of Thrones.”
Once “Game of Thrones” ends, what does HBO have to hang its hat on? “Westworld,” which some saw as a “Game of Thrones” successor, never quite captured audiences in the same way.
This is a problem in the era of the streaming wars, when every single content creator is launching its own OTT offering and asking consumers to shell out yet another monthly subscription fee.
The field is remarkably crowded already, with more on the way: CBS All Access, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube TV, Sling TV, DirecTV Now, PlayStation Vue, FuboTV, Pluto TV, ESPN+, DAZN, FloSports, NFL Sunday Ticket, MLB.tv, NBA League Pass, and WWE Network all carry monthly subscription fees. And launching soon are Disney+, Apple TV+, AT&T and WarnerMedia’s offering, NBCUniversal’s offering, and Discovery’s offering.
Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu each made their name as homes for original content on the shoulders of a single must-watch show: “House of Cards” for Netflix, “Transparent” for Amazon Prime, and “The Handmaid’s Tale” for Hulu. On Netflix, “Orange is the New Black” and then “Stranger Things” followed “House of Cards” as the next big hits. For Amazon, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” succeeded “Transparent.” HBO isn’t going to lure new OTT subscribers with 30-minute comedies like “Barry.”
Some pundits doubt that any original drama can come close to the same level of mass popularity as “Game of Thrones.” If you ask Daniel Cherry, CMO of Activision Blizzard Esports Leagues, the next massively popular series would have to be another sci-fi or fantasy program. "It couldn't be something set in our everyday real world,” he theorizes. “Our content experiences are too hyper-segmented and polarized for a mass audience to be consistently entertained by a real-world serialized program.”
But HBO has arguably faced this problem in the past, when “The Sopranos” ended and then when “The Wire” ended one year later, in 2008. And the “Game of Thrones” problem may be more of a concern for HBO and Showtime than it is for OTT creators like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Those platforms have so much additional content to offer that they no longer need one single smash hit show to lure subscribers. Recent data has shown, in fact, that some of the most watched content on Netflix are documentary films, or re-runs of “The Office.” In other words, it isn’t all about original shows for them.
Netflix spent $12 billion on original content last year, and Apple is expected to spend as much as $8 billion in the next year on original shows in its effort to find the flagship hit that will lure subscribers to Apple TV+.
For all original television creators, the race to find the next “Game of Thrones” is on.
Daniel Roberts is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance and closely covers streaming tech. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.