Game of Thrones: The Business Behind TV’s Hottest Show

By Phill Powell

The hottest show on TV has been described as “The Sopranos in Middle Earth,” and there is some truth to that. After all, HBO’s epic fantasy/action series Game of Thrones was ranked in one 2012 study as having the second-highest number of deaths per episode, with an average of 14 characters biting the dust each episode.

Game of Thrones has received critical acclaim and stunning popularity after only two seasons. The HBO series has already been renewed for a fourth series, to the delight of the show’s legions of fans.

But regardless of the show’s bloodlust, Game of Thrones has exploded in popularity, proving to be a ratings juggernaut for HBO. Now shown in 75 countries around the world, the fantasy series features the largest cast on TV (with more than 275 actors per season) and big-screen production values. The Game of Thrones pilot alone cost between $5 and $10 million, with a price tag of $50 to $60 million for the entire first season.

Now in its third season, Game of Thrones claims one of the most dedicated fan bases in all media. A 2012 Vulture study ranked the fans of various entertainment franchises and declared Game of Thrones fans to be the most devoted—outranking fans that support “Harry Potter” and even…gulp…“Star Wars”!

International Blockbuster
Based on a fantasy trilogy by author George R.R. Martin (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords) and primarily shot in four countries (Ireland, Malta, Morocco and Croatia), Game of Thrones is concerned with the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and the various noble families who are trying to claim the power of the Iron Throne.

Game of Thrones exists in a realm where magic is a real and potent force, as are dragons.

One of the show’s intriguing aspects is its setting, inspired by one period of European history or another—such as England’s War of the Roses (1455-1485), or France during the first half of the 14th century, or the great Icelandic sagas of the Vikings.

The show is rich in intrigue, deception and treachery—like its New Jersey neighbors, The Sopranos—and its depiction of medieval violence is unflinching and brutal. The show’s plot is so intricate and involved that it can hardly be summarized within any one article. Keep track with the Game of Thrones Viewer’s Guide or visit the Official Game of Thrones Production Diary.

Like any good show there’s even more that goes on behind the scenes to propel it into fandom:

Game of Thrones Stats

  • Number of Video Game Licenses: Three. 2011’s A Game of Thrones: Genesis, by Cyanide Publishing. Game of Thrones: The Role-Playing Game also by Cyanide. Still in development is Game of Thrones: Seven Kingdoms, being produced by Bigpoint, and developed by Artplant (Battlestar Galactica Online).
  • GOT Merchandise: Action figures, statues, bobbleheads, weapon replicas, clothing (fashion designer Helmut Lang created his fall 2012 ready-to-wear line in honor of the series) and craft beer. This spring a traveling exhibition of props, costumes, weapons and armor is touring major world capitals.
  • Pop-Culture Tribute: The show was parodied in Mad magazine in 2013. The story? “School of Thrones” set in a high school, with various students using GOT-styled treachery to become prom king and queen.
  • HBO Record Breaker: The first season box sets (released in March 2012) sold 350,000 copies in its first seven days of its release—the largest first-week DVD sales for any HBO show ever. The show also holds the record for biggest number of digital download sales. With 10.3 million viewers, it’s the third most-watched series in HBO history.
  • Most Pirated: According to TorrentFreak, one episode was illegally downloaded by 4.3 million people. That was equal to HBO’s entire television viewership for that episode.
  • Taking TV Emmy: With 13 Emmy nominations in its first year (including Outstanding Drama Series), Game of Thrones captured Emmy gold twice—once for actor Peter Dinklage who won the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series award for his portrayal of the clever and devious Tyrion. Other Emmys: Outstanding Main Title Design. Outstanding Special Visual Effects. Outstanding Costumes for a series. Other Awards: The Television Critics Association Outstanding New Program in its first season. The Television Critics Association Program of the Year in its second. Game of Thrones was nominated for six Emmy awards in 2012.
  • Developed Dialogue: The colorful Dothraki language was developed by a linguist from the Language Creation Society, who helped scope out the 1,800 words and phrases.
  • Northern Ireland Tourist Destination: Fans come to the Emerald Isle to see where their favorite show gets filmed. Wherever the show has been filmed, a spike in local tourism has been directly accredited to the show’s enormous popularity.
  • Crafty Costumes: Producers go to great lengths to ensure accuracy for characters. Character wigs, which cost about $7,000 apiece, are made of human hair and can be up to two feet long. They are washed and styled like a real head of hair. For some of the actors who need that uncared-for and greasy look, wigs are processed to make it look like they haven’t been washed in weeks.
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    Peter Dinklage captured a 2011 Emmy for his portrayal of Tyrion. Dinklage was the first cast member to win Emmy gold, but almost certainly won’t be the last.

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