HBO’s lavish fantasy epic Game of Thrones may be the biggest TV gamble in years, but even before the drama premieres Sunday night, odds are favorable that HBO will renew the show. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have been told to start thinking about storylines for next season, while HBO series chief Sue Naegle tells EW network executives feel optimistic that the series will get another round.
“We’re not nervous about it,” she says. “We’re all hopeful for a second season. We’re all feeling confident creatively.”
The bullishness isn’t just about predicting healthy ratings (though success on that front isn’t entirely unlikely either). Subscription-based HBO, Showtime and Starz focus on delivering exclusive and premium content that you can’t find anywhere else rather than mammoth Nielsens. That’s why procedural cop-doctor-laywer dramas (which draw big numbers for broadcasters) are rare on the pay networks — they’re not considered unique enough.
Thrones is arguably the most ambitious fantasy TV series ever produced and comes with an enthusiastic pre-built fan-base who devoured George R.R. Martin’s bestselling novels. It’s precisely the type of programming HBO believes viewers will pay to see — on the air, and also in the equally important home video and international distribution marketplace.
Plus, with the first 10-episode season of Thrones costing at least $50 million, the show ranks as one of the more expensive first TV seasons ever produced. The network has scheduled 11 airings of the premiere episode across its six channels during the first 26 hours after its debut. The amount of start-up capital spent bringing the mythical land of Westeros to life makes having only a single season a rather worrisome proposition. Says Naegle: “You don’t want to see shows like this that are a big investment do one season and out.”
Another, lesser factor is the relationship between the network and the producers on the show and how difficult the production and script development process has been. “And Thrones has been a dream,” Naegle says.
Still, nothing is set in stone. No matter how much momentum there’s behind the show, or how quality-driven and multi-platform-based the business model, HBO still needs Thrones to deliver a certain number on Sunday nights to continue. And its relatively large budget is a double-edged sword: Thrones ratings need to be stronger than a Treme or an In Treatment or The Wire — HBO shows that received renewals based largely on critical acclaim. But given the success of True Blood and AMC’s The Walking Dead, high-quality, adult-targeted genre shows on cable have recently proven they can indeed deliver enviable numbers, and strong early reviews suggest Thrones might have what it takes.
Be sure to go to EW.com after watching HBO’s Thrones on Sunday for our recap critiquing the premiere episode, plus we’ll have Thrones ratings on Monday. Plus bookmark our Game of Thrones Central and follow me on Twitter: @james_hibberd