In many ways, Game of Thrones is emblematic of modern TV. It's an expensive prestige show that cedes nothing to Hollywood and its theatrical films. It airs on a service, AT&T's (NYSE:T) HBO, that makes it available to stream. And it's the subject of online buzz and a major part of our pop culture.
In another way, though, Game of Thrones feels less like something from the Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) era and more like a blast from the past: Every Sunday evening for eight of the past nine years (HBO took one year off to prepare the final season), millions and millions of people have sat down and watched the show together.
Gathering around the TV
To be clear, not every Game of Thrones fan watches the show live. HBO says that 13.6 million people watched the show live out of a total 19.3 million people who have seen it as of this writing, meaning there are millions watching after the original premiere. But Game of Thrones has, by and large, been a shockingly "live" experience for streaming television, which is so often associated with "binge-watching" and a diversity of streaming choices.
In fact, Game of Thrones managed to beat the live audience of 13.4 million drawn by the finale of The Sopranos -- which, until last month, held the record (despite the fact that recent Game of Thrones episodes have routinely posted comparable figures for total views).
An alternative to binge-watching
Comparing anything to a monster hit like Game of Thrones is tricky -- there were a lot of factors that made the show so historic, and its release schedule was just one of them. Still, HBO's release schedule for shows like Game of Thrones, including Veep, True Detective, and other hits, makes for an interesting contrast to Netflix's full-season dumps.
The Netflix strategy of releasing entire seasons all at once can generate lots of hype for a show, especially after the company reports stellar numbers (if somewhat unreliable ones, given Netflix's sometimes fuzzy math) for how many episodes viewers binge watched. But it also means that discussion of individual episodes is pushed aside in favor of discussion of entire seasons, and the gluttonous habits of Netflix binge viewers leave little to look forward to until the next season.
Live TV lives on
This is not to say that, strictly speaking, HBO's release schedule is superior. In some ways, the full-season dump works just fine for Netflix, which wants to eat up user streaming hours and leverage its original content to become less reliant on licensed reruns -- now more than ever. And Netflix releases so many original series that it's easy to imagine moderately popular titles falling off users' radars before the second episode premieres, especially if quality is an issue. Netflix's prestige shows may lose some momentum with the all or nothing release, but its lesser efforts are probably more attractive as subjects of a single night's binge than they would be if they had to build ongoing hype and anticipation.
But it is clear is that the on-demand streaming era does not have to mean the death of "live" airings of scheduled content. HBO's strategy is an incredible hype-building machine -- hype like the free advertising offered by ubiquitous Game of Thrones episode recaps, for instance. Episode recaps for full-season dumps don't make much sense since audiences don't watch the same episodes on the same schedule and can't really "miss" the on-demand experience.
Netflix may have kicked off the streaming revolution, but HBO is bringing the best things about TV to its new on-demand reality. It's easy to imagine a time when live channels are gone, but the live experience lives on.