As we know, HBO shows do not win or die by rating numbers alone since premium cable networks do not sell advertisment time. More important is the general buzz which translates to subscriptions, DVD sales, international airing rights, and what not. Step three: profit. This buzz is perhaps first and foremost created by critical acclaim, as the conventional wisdom says (keep track of the review aggregate at Metacritic.com), but good ratings themselves can contribute a great deal. Record opening numbers and viewership make for good news stories, and are especially important when the investment into the show and its promotion is high, such as in the case of Game of Thrones. Let us therefore explore the world of ratings and speculate a bit.
Because I like graphic representations and shiny things, I have created this chart, plotting the ratings of a number of shows (in million) over the course of their first seasons:
A range of caveats are in order. Firstly, ratings curves over seasons longer or shorter than ten episodes have been adjusted to fit the graph and allow an easier mapping to the Game of Thones run. Secondly, and more importantly, keep in mind that the shows’ ratings are not directly comparable. The Walking Dead aired on a more widely accessible network (AMC). HBO used to have a bigger subscriber base in the times of The Sopranos and Rome. The subscription numbers have since dropped due to a variety of reasons (hopefully Game of Thrones is going to bring these back up, as nothing would help its renewal chances more). Still, they remain larger than either those of Starz (Spartacus) or Showtime (The Tudors). In addition, Boardwalk Empire premiered on a free-pass weekend and was thus available to viewers without an HBO subscription, hence the high initial ratings. Thirdly, as much as I tried to get the best information available, the viewing figures may have been arrived at through the use of slightly different methodologies, and some missing ones had to be extrapolated. Despite everything, I believe that the graphics above give us a useful overview of the approximate ratings range as well as trends.
So, where is Game of Thrones going to fit in? Speculations abound. The word is out there that many of the providers are again going to have HBO freely available the weekend of the premiere, which will boost the ratings of the first episode. This makes me believe the show should really open at a minimum of three-and-something million viewers, but possibly higher, closer to Boardwalk Empire, to be considered an early success. A drop is then naturally expected when it comes to episode 2, and we can only hope it will not be too sharp. From that point onwards, I predict a steady increase in ratings (with the possible expection of the Memorial Day weekend airing of episode 7), as the word of mouth spreads and more and more people get hooked by the reported quality and the addicting plot of the show. Viewership is built slowly, as you can see above in the first season ratings — only later down the line The Sopranos reached the season averages of over 10 million and True Blood the current 5 million ratings. Let us cross our fingers Game of Thrones can follow in their runaway-hit footsteps.