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HBO Faces Hard Questions in Post-‘Game of Thrones’ Streaming Market

"Game of Thrones" was the premium streaming service's flagship show. Now that it's over, questions remain about the service's next steps.

Peter Dinklage and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, "Game of Thrones"

Peter Dinklage and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”

HBO

The Iron Throne has melted, and with it, so goes HBO’s flagship show and major moneymaker.

“Game of Thrones” served as one of the premium subscription service’s key selling points for years, with nearly every episode in the show’s final two seasons pulling in over 10 million viewers every Sunday, according to Nielsen ratings. Now that the show has concluded, HBO must forge ahead with new projects if it wants to keep its momentum — and subscribers.

The conclusion of such a broadly appealing show will likely cause a considerable number of HBO customers to drop their subscriptions if HBO can’t entice them with new releases, according to Jimmy Schaeffler, an analyst at the Carmel Group.

“My estimate would be that in the short-term they will lose significantly,” Schaeffler told IndieWire. “If your premium content is no longer as premium as it was last month, it will put a lot of pressure on them. The question is whether they can hang in there long enough to produce more hits in the long-term.”

There is historical precedent for that concern, according to analyses from app-data research firm Sensor Tower. The firm reported in 2017 that though subscriber retention was improving, HBO had seem an increasing number of customers subscribe to the service to watch “Game of Thrones,” only to have many of them abandon the service after seasons of the show ended.

More recently, Sensor Tower said that HBO apps added 1.7 million new mobile users for the premiere week of “Game of Thrones” Season 8. A Sensor Tower representative said it would take several weeks to determine how the end of “Game of Thrones” impacted HBO’s subscription numbers due to the way the service’s billing system is set up. Time, then, will tell if that trend continues in 2019.

The last few months have been full of changes for the streaming service, and not only because “Game of Thrones” has ended. HBO has experienced upheavals on the corporate level in recent months that create questions about the service’s future direction. Telecom giant AT&T acquired Time Warner Inc., which owned HBO, last year, which resulted in several key departures.

Former HBO CEO Richard Plepler was one of several senior executives to step down since the AT&T purchase, which Deadline reported could put an end to the network’s autonomy. Longtime television executive Bob Greenblatt took the reigns of WarnerMedia in March as part of the reorganization and will be responsible for managing HBO and other major networks, including TNT, TBS, and TruTV.

Of course, one of the most obvious answers to HBO’s post-“Game of Thrones” question is: Just make more “Game of Thrones.” Several spinoff shows have been floated and rumored for quite some time, though only one of them appears to be making much headway.

HBO is filming the pilot for the potential “Game of Thrones” prequel, which will star Naomi Watts and be created by Jane Goldman and George R.R. Martin, this month, though it’s unlikely the spinoff would air anytime in the near future.

Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that a follow-up series would enjoy the monolithic success of “Game of Thrones,” despite the franchise’s popularity. While spinoffs shows are certainly capable of pulling respectable viewership numbers, it’d be a tall order for any “Game of Thrones” offshoot to achieve the same level of cultural and commercial success as the original series.

That said, some recent spinoffs of popular shows have enjoyed high viewership numbers. Season 2 of “Better Call Saul,” the spinoff prequel to “Breaking Bad,” averaged over 2 million viewers per episode, according to Nielsen. Season 3 and Season 4 of the spinoff averaged roughly 1.5 million viewers per episode. Though Season 5 of “Breaking Bad” enjoyed stronger numbers, “Better Call Saul” has performed about as well or better than the other seasons of “Breaking Bad” with regards to viewership.

“Young Sheldon,” the prequel to CBS hit “The Big Bang Theory,” is another spinoff success story. Though recent “The Big Bang Theory” seasons as the show came to an end averaged several million more viewers than the two seasons of “Young Sheldon,” the spinoff is still one of television’s ratings kings. The first season of “Young Sheldon” averaged over 16 million viewers per episode, while Season 2 averaged over 14 million viewers per episode, according to Nielsen.

But for every “Better Call Saul” or “Young Sheldon,” there’s 10 television spinoffs that have crashed and burned with regards to viewership. (Sorry, “Joey,” you’re always going to be mentioned in this context.) While future shows in the “Game of Thrones” universe would enjoy the considerable advantage of brand recognition, it could be risky for the network to hedge too many of its bets in such a series. If the upcoming prequel is similar in scope to “Game of Thrones” and features a similarly large ensemble cast and extensive CGI — it will likely be an expensive production. “Game of Thrones” was not a cheap show to produce: Each episode of the final season had a budget of at least $15 million.

HBO seems aware of such concerns. Although the network declined to comment for this story, HBO programming president Casey Bloys told IndieWire in February that HBO wouldn’t be rushing to produce multiple “Game of Thrones” spinoffs for the foreseeable future.

“I’m not looking to make HBO just the home of ‘Game of Thrones’ prequels, or sequels, or anything like that,” Bloys said. “I think it’s a very exciting and rich world that we’re lucky enough to have, but I’m not looking to overdo it.”

Regardless, analyst Schaeffler said the upcoming prequel was a good move by the network. Beyond that, he added that HBO would likely look to invest in original historical shows and dramas that could boast themes and tones that’d be familiar to “Game of Thrones” fans.

“The spinoff is absolutely a good idea because if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” Schaeffler said. “’Game of Thrones’ showed that historical fiction is really an important genre and one that HBO has done well. I would expect them to spend a lot more money, not just on the super fantastical type of genre, but on things similar to ‘Versailles’ or ‘Vikings.’”

The power players at HBO appear to agree, if several of the network’s recent and upcoming projects are any indication. “Gentlemen Jack,” a period drama about 19th century businesswoman Anne Lister premiered on HBO in the spring and has been renewed for a second season, while a “Catherine the Great” miniseries is expected to be released on the network later in the year.

Outside historical fiction, HBO has several other projects in the pipeline that could retain subscribers and court new ones. For example, the network released a trailer for the upcoming third season of “Westworld,” another successful HBO program that deals with dark themes, just before the “Game of Thrones” series finale. “Westworld” will return in 2020, while HBO drama “Big Little Lies” will premiere its second season on the network Sunday.

Though viewership numbers for “Big Little Lies,” which peaked at 1.9 million viewers for the Season 1 finale, don’t hold a candle to the the massive audience of “Game of Thrones,” the show has nonetheless enjoyed both critical and commercial success. The show won eight of the 14 Emmys it was nominated for at the 69th Annual Primetime Emmys, including Outstanding Limited Series.

The network will also make a significant push into the superhero genre — which is hardly lacking in mass appeal — when “Watchmen,” based on the legendary comic book of the same name, premieres on HBO in the fall.

Programming aside, pricing is an ever-present topic that consumers may consider when choosing which streaming services to subscribe to. An HBO subscription costs $15 a month, which is more expensive than all of the service’s major competitors. A standard Netflix subscription runs for $13, Hulu’s ad-free plan costs $12, and an annual Amazon Prime membership, which includes video, costs $119.

All streamers will also face increased pressure in the coming months when Disney and Apple enter the market in the fall. Though Apple TV+’s pricing, like most other details about the service, is unknown, Disney+ will launch on November 12 for the bargain price of $7 a month and air original shows that will be a part of the ever-popular Marvel Cinematic Universe.

While the increased competition could put more pressure on HBO, the end of “Game of Thrones” means that the show’s writers and actors can invest time in different projects, while viewers can begin exploring new shows, according to Schaeffler.

“On the plus side it opens a lot of talent and leaves a lot of creative people decently available,” Schaeffler said. “It causes a lot of people who might have been locked into watching ‘Game of Thrones’ to start looking at other competitors. For the consumer, I think it is a great time to be watching video.”

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