Cabler adds muscle to fantasy series promotion

HBO has picked up “Game of Thrones” right out of the gate, ordering a second season for the fantasy series just two days after the 65-minute premiere episode aired.

The series, based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels and starring Peter Dinklage and Sean Bean, tracks political intrigue among the seven ruling families in a kingdom called Westeros. It is produced by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

“We believe in this show,” HBO programming head Michael Lombardo said. “We think it’s compelling, and it only grows more so over time. The decision is easy when shows are this good — when you’re not expecting to lose a few viewers after the pilot.”

The net devoted months of promotion to the series, with stunts all over New York and L.A. ranging from food trucks selling branded chow cooked up by chef Tom Colicchio to pedicabs decked out to look like the series’ Iron Throne. And for many, HBO was free this weekend.

Genre shows have been popular with young adults over the past year, with HBO’s “True Blood” and AMC’s “The Walking Dead” often beating their broadcast competition in adults 18-49.

On its opening night, “Thrones” drew 2.2 million viewers in its regular 9 o’clock slot, then added another 1.2 million for its quickie repeat at 10:05 p.m. (where it likely picked up viewers following the completion of the Boston-New York NBA playoff game on TNT). Throw in the 11:15 p.m. airing (800,000) and “Thrones” drew 4.2 million viewers, according to HBO.

The 2.2 million is larger than what “True Blood” opened to in 1.44 in September 2008 but below the 4.81 million for “Boardwalk Empire” (which was also renewed after just one installment) last September.

HBO is certainly hoping to give its subscribers numerous opportunities to watch the pilot, scheduling 11 repeats of the premiere over a roughly 30-hour span Sunday and Monday.

“Boardwalk” numbers have dropped since the premiere, but HBO co-prexy Richard Plepler said he believed “Thrones” viewers are likely to stick with the series. Plepler hopes that the new skein will follow the pattern set by the pay cabler’s other genre show, “True Blood,” which shored up weak initial numbers to become the net’s biggest ratings draw currently running.

“It’s much less important to look at the number of viewers than to look at how passionate they are,” Plepler said, pointing to buzz on Twitter and in the blogosphere during and after the premiere. “I think it’ll continue to grow.”

“Game of Thrones” follows the first novel (“A Game of Thrones”) in Martin’s complex series very closely; Benioff and Weiss told Variety that they hope to adapt the second novel, “A Clash of Kings,” into a similar 10-episode arc. Lombardo confirmed that the network is leaning toward a ten-seg season two.

Martin, who writes one episode each season, will be penning the teleplay for the giant battle at the end of “Clash,” according to his blog. “David & Dan give me the easy stuff,” he joked. The battle lasts several chapters and is one of two pivotal setpieces in the second volume, both of which are potentially expensive to produce.

Nelson McCausland, the minister for culture, arts and leisure in Northern Ireland (where much of the series is shot), said in a blog post last year that the budget for the first season was around £30 million, or about $49 million.

“George’s storytelling is a challenge even for us on our budget,” Lombardo said. “We’re already talking about ways to do it on budget without disappointing the fans.”

After season two, however, the job becomes more difficult: “A Storm of Swords,” the third book in the series, is much more than a season’s worth of story and weighs in at more than 1,100 pages.

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