Of course, there may never be another show that captures the public imagination in the way Game of Thrones has, but the big US broadcasters are hoping there will be. Many are frantically and openly scrambling to find “the next Game of Thrones” (a race in which HBO may or may not have a headstart by virtue of having commissioned a prequel series).
If someone does strike gold again, you can bet that the combination of portable screens, the threat of piracy, and the risk of spoilers through saturation coverage in the media and social media will mean it plays out in the same way: simulcast globally, on every platform imaginable. It simply can’t afford not to.
Technically, every Thrones fan on the planet could watch the finale at the same time on Monday, but they won’t. The fact it is being simulcast in 170 countries owes far more to the war on piracy than it does to people’s desire to watch it at 2am (the time of its first broadcast in the UK), or even at 11am (when it first airs here).
In all likelihood, even once the 28-day ratings window has closed, the Game of Thrones finale will not be the most-watched show in the US. The finale of M*A*S*H will retain that title, with its astonishing audience of 105.9 million (at a time when the population was 234 million). The Thrones finale won’t come near the 80.4 million who tuned in for the finale of Cheers in 1993 either, or the 78 million who wanted to see what happened to Richard Kimble in the 1967 finale of The Fugitive (remade as a Harrison Ford film in 1993). Seinfeld‘s 76.3 million (1998) is probably safe too, though Friends‘ 52.5 million (2004) might not be.
In the UK, Only Fools and Horses (24 million for an episode in December 1996) will stand firm. In Australia, the 49 per cent audience share for Roots (1977) is unlikely ever to be challenged.
Those figures are all for the initial broadcast, which is when most people watched a show in the days before time-shifting, on-demand and multiple broadcasts. Game of Thrones languishes a long way behind on that measure, but it captures only a fraction of the show’s total audience.
In the US, this season of Game of Thrones debuted with a record 11.76 million viewers. But the season average is now up to 43 million per episode. It’s a long way from the 2.2 million who tuned in for the premiere in April 2011.
In Australia this season debuted with 294,000 viewers at 11am on April 15, but is now averaging 1.44 million viewers per episode via Foxtel’s set-top boxes, with 667,000 watching on devices such as laptops, tablets and phones via Foxtel Go or Foxtel Now (there is some overlap between these audiences, so they are not combined).
Of course, Game of Thrones is also the most pirated show on the planet. According to piracy monitoring service MUSO, episode one of this season was torrented 54 million times in the first 24 hours after broadcast – that’s three times the number of “legitimate” viewers (17.4 million) on HBO in its first 24 hours. It is impossible to know how many more people have watched those files, burnt to USB and shared around.
Australia used to regularly top the chart on all that GoT torrent traffic, but with the advent of cheaper, no-fixed-term subscriptions to Foxtel and simultaneous broadcast, we have dropped to a lowly 10th place. The new leaders in piracy are India and China, with the latter spurred by heavy censorship that saw around six minutes of the first episode of this season cut from its local broadcast.
All of which is to say that on the basis of numbers alone, Game of Thrones isn’t likely to become the most-watched show ever in any one country on Monday.
But by virtue of being broadcast to 170 countries at the same time, of being available to watch on a plethora of viewing devices at any time viewers choose, and through its dominance of the media and social media conversation in the hours and days that follow, the Game of Thrones finale will be a global television event the likes of which we have not experienced before.
And in that sense at least, it will be the biggest television show we have ever seen.
Karl is a senior entertainment writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.