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How ‘Game of Thrones’ made TV climb higher


    In the streaming era, the number of scripted shows airing in the United States has shot up 86 percent, from 266 in 2011 to 495 last year. Yet amid this glut no series has had more influence or created more industrywide envy than “Game of Thrones.”

In the eight years since “Game of Thrones” went on the air, the television industry has been upended. We can thank Netflix for that.

Consider that in the streaming era, the number of scripted shows airing in the United States has shot up 86 percent, from 266 in 2011 to 495 last year.

Yet amid this glut no series has had more influence or created more industrywide envy than “Thrones,” which begins its final season on HBO on April 14.

Everyone wants its awards: “Thrones” has won more Emmys than any other dramatic series ever (including best drama three times).

Everyone wants its reach: It’s the most popular show in HBO’s history and one of the most watched shows of the last decade (when including digital viewership, its most recent season averaged more than 30 million viewers an episode).

Everyone wants its scale and scope: The series was one of the most influential in an era in which television budgets for dramas have ballooned from $3 million an episode to, in some cases, $10 million or more.

Everyone wants its boldness: “Thrones” famously killed off the face of the show, Sean Bean, before its first season was over and has repeatedly redefined assumptions about what’s possible on TV, both tonally (sexposition, shocking violence) and technically (dragons, sweeping battle scenes).

“We used to have a different experience for movies and the television business,” said Gary Newman, the recently departed co-chairman of the Fox Television Group. “Now you can feel it melding. I give ‘Thrones’ a lot of credit for that.”

And everyone, including newer outlets like Hulu and Apple, have been looking for the next “Thrones,” a series that can define a network, and help persuade people to hand over $10 or $15 a month for subscriptions.

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Three years after “Thrones” debuted, Netflix ordered its own high-budget epic series “Marco Polo” about the Mongol empire (which was a flop). Amazon bought the TV rights to make a “Lord of the Rings” series and spent north of $200 million to do so (and still needs a script). Apple has a big-budget fantasy drama starring Jason Momoa and Alfre Woodard about what happens when to humanity after everyone goes blind (which still needs a premiere date).

There have been lots of mixed results so far.

“It has made everyone say, ‘OK, where is our ‘Game of Thrones’? Which is the exact wrong way to find your next ‘Game of Thrones,’ ” said Casey Bloys, president of programming at HBO. “Just to set out and say ‘Well we’re going to make our next “Game of Thrones”; we’re going to do a real giant show with a huge budget,’ well that doesn’t allow for all the other things that have to go right for a show to really resonate with a viewer.”

Which is why HBO has been, as Bloys put it, “deliberate” in finding its “Thrones” successor from the universe of George R.R. Martin’s books. HBO will shoot a pilot for a “Thrones” prequel, created by Martin and Jane Goldman, in June.

Still, “Thrones” has helped open up a big fantasy universe for the network. In the coming months, it will air an adaptation of controversial epic “His Dark Materials.” Likewise, “Leftovers” co-creator Damon Lindelof is creating an adaptation of the comic books “Watchmen.” And HBO has other science fiction series coming from J.J. Abrams and “Avengers” director Joss Whedon.

If such big-ticket genre series were once unthinkable for the network that made “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” well, little of television looks the way it did eight years ago.

“Thrones” began in April 2011 on HBO, just a few weeks after Netflix gave a David Fincher-directed drama “House of Cards” a straight-to-series order. Today, Netflix makes more original programs than any studio or network and has spurred the dizzying spike in the number of television series made. It will spend at least $10 billion on content this year.

“Thrones,” which had a budget that started at $5 million an episode but ballooned to as much as $15 million an episode in the final season, helped create the current era of enormous spending, even for shows without CGI dragons, White Walkers and direwolves.

For instance, Apple committed to two seasons of a morning TV show dramedy starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston that the company has allocated $240 million to make. At the time, Apple made the pledge even though the show had no script.

“‘Thrones’ certainly accelerated it, raising production value to an incredible place,” Newman said.

“That used to be reserved just for HBO, and that’s clearly no longer the case,” he continued. “Netflix and Amazon and now even the broadcast networks and the big cable networks like an FX, TNT are doing it. They’re all realizing they have to raise their game with things that feel more epic and with greater scope to compete with what HBO and other premium services are doing.”

Bloys might think that an emphasis on bigness — big budgets, big productions — is the wrong lesson to take from the success of “Thrones.” But he does allow that it was a significant part of the formula.

“‘Thrones’ was the first show that demonstrated you could produce a show with real cinematic scope,” Bloys said. “That you could think bigger — both in terms of character and drama and in special effects. That it would work, that taking shots and spending real money and putting it on the screen would pay off.”

Now all someone has to do is find the next “Thrones.”

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