- - Thursday, May 16, 2019

Sunday’s episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” marks the end of the award-winning series — and perhaps of an era of scripted TV shows capturing a wide audience.

The eighth and final season of “Game of Thrones” has been averaging about 17 million viewers each week on the premium cable network at a time when viewers have a crush of channels and streaming services from which to choose. Its success won’t be easily duplicated, media analysts say.

Leigh Camacho Rourks, an assistant professor of English and humanities at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, said the sword-and-sorcery drama leverages nail-biting narratives for the digital age.

The show marries “cliffhangers and shocking, unexpected turns with social media’s rise” to create must-see TV 2.0, she said. Viewers can record episodes and watch them at their convenience, but that means a random Twitter or Facebook fan may spoil the surprises ahead, she said.

“Anything can happen at any time. No one is safe,” Ms. Camacho Rourks said of a show renowned for killing off major characters such as the noble Ned Stark and the savage Khal Drogo.

“To get the best of what ‘Game of Thrones’ roller-coaster-like jolts have to offer, watchers need to walk in blind, spoiler-free,” she said.

Long gone are the days when most of the nation would gather around the TV set to watch the finale of a popular broadcast. “M*A*S*H” drew 106 million viewers for its send-off in 1983, and “Seinfeld” attracted 76.3 million viewers for its last episode in 1998. But CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” — the No. 1 comedy on broadcast television — won just 12.25 million viewers for its penultimate episode last week. Ratings for Thursday night’s finale were unavailable at press time.

These days, watching a show with your Twitter account open creates an experience that past TV smashes can’t compete with.

The rewards for watching “Game of Thrones” on first airing begin with a lavish production design once relegated to feature films. The show’s production crews have traveled to 10 countries over its eight seasons, including 50 locations in Ireland and treks to Croatia, Iceland and Morocco. The price tag for such extravagance isn’t cheap. The final season is setting HBO back roughly $15 million per episode.

Those figures were once unheard of for a television series. Prestige shows including “The Sopranos” typically went as high as $2 million per installment. Now, programs such as Amazon’s “Jack Ryan” ($8 million per episode) and the network’s upcoming “Lord of the Rings” series ($250 million for the rights alone) are becoming the norm for high-end fare.

Competition breeds excellence, and the accompanying price tags can be considerable.

HBO’s “The Sopranos” aired before social media truly blossomed. The mobster family drama is considered to be one of television’s finest masterpieces. Yet the show’s infamous final episode mustered only 11.9 million viewers. The “Sex and the City” finale, marking the end of another HBO powerhouse, couldn’t even match that, netting roughly 10.6 million.

“Game of Thrones” mesmerizes a large swath of the public in ways Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw never could. Just sign onto any social network on any given Sunday night during the season, and you’ll be inundated with reactions tied to the show and “GoT”-related hashtags.

Each “Game of Thrones” airing coincides with robust Facebook and Twitter conversations. The left-right divide largely fades while fans dissect every last item of the latest episode of the medieval fantasy, even an out-of-place Starbucks cup.

The social media tracking company Talkwalker said “Game of Thrones” generated more than 46 million social media mentions in a 30-day period around its eighth season debut. For context, AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” another ratings winner, racked up 3 million mentions during that same span.

Jana Mathews, associate professor of English and medieval literature at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, said the popularity of “Game of Thrones” makes little sense on the surface.

“It violates every standard convention. It kills off main characters. … It breaks free from the [TV] mold,” she said, adding that any show brimming with extreme violence, sexual assault and dense political backstories hardly screams four-quadrant appeal.

In a way, the latter element may boost its appeal, Ms. Mathews said. She describes the “cache” fans embrace for tracking all the intricate narratives on display.

“There’s a definite barrier to entry” with its requirement to have an HBO subscription, and the storylines could leave casual viewers baffled, she said.

The show’s ability to make viewers watch it on first airing creates another layer of appreciation. Millennials, in particular, get to experience “appointment TV” for the first time.

“That may be titillating for its newness, while the older generation it’s sweetly nostalgic, like watching TV the way we used to,” Ms. Mathews said. “It’s about to straddle the generational divide.”

All of the above make “Game of Thrones” a hard act to follow, said Mickey White, a co-host of “The Jim and Mickey Show,” a pop culture podcast. Ms. White said “Game of Thrones” wouldn’t be the sensation it is without its depth — an aspect most shows can’t copy.

“The storytelling is Shakespearean in nature, with an HBO twist,” Ms. White said. “Violence and sex are the hook, but what keeps viewers around is the investment in the characters.”

HBO is banking on a prequel series duplicating at least some of the original show’s success. Ms. White suggests the world originally created by author George R.R. Martin offers considerable material to plunder, creatively speaking. The odds are still stacked sky-high against it.

“It will need to live up to the original, and I’m not sure that is possible. The history of Westeros is fascinating and filled with magical tales, so in that regard, they should have a lot of material,” she said of the story’s fictitious locale. “It will be very difficult for HBO or anyone else to duplicate.”

Mrs. Camacho Rourks agrees, saying the show’s kinetic sensibilities can’t be easily mimicked, even by a prestige network like HBO.

“For the prequel series to enjoy the same appointment-television success, it too will need to hook us not just on the plot and characters, but on that adrenalin high,” she said.

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