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How Game of Thrones Redefined HBO–and prestige TV

An oral history of the moment that changed television forever.

How Game of Thrones Redefined HBO–and prestige TV
[Photos: courtesy of Helen Sloan/HBO]

Chances are, if you are in any way, shape, or form a student of popular culture or television, it’s not news that the final season of Game of Thrones will air on Sunday, April 14. If you are, in fact, a member of this category, you probably also know the exact length of the first episode (54 minutes); how many episodes there will be this season (six); and that this season is the grand finale for a series that has rocked the culture, shattering record after record in terms of viewership and awards. The show, which HBO launched in 2011, averages more than 23 million viewers an episode and has won more Emmys than any other prime-time series. These accolades are all the more impressive given our fractured, too-many-television-choices times, when getting a meaningful swath of the population to watch the same show week after week, year after year, is, more often than not, an impossible challenge. 

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Indeed, a lot has happened since 2011, and not just because of the arrival of streaming and Fortnite. HBO is now not owned by Time Warner, but by AT&T, and has been rolled up into a sprawling internet-media entity known as WarnerMedia. The leadership at the company has also been overturned, with the recent exit of longtime chairman and CEO Richard Plepler and the installation of former NBCUniversal chairman Bob Greenblatt as the new WarnerMedia Entertainment czar. It was Plepler, along with former HBO programming president Michael Lombardo–who left HBO in 2016–who made the risky bet to put Thrones on the air at a time when the company was associated with the kind of highbrow, adult series that made for acceptable chatter at Manhattan cocktail parties (The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm), not epic fantasy shows populated by dragons. 

All of which means that this final season of Thrones is its own epic swan song on a variety of levels. As HBO enters into its next phase, one that is already being defined by a Netflix-ian push into a greater volume of content in order to meet WarnerMedia’s streaming needs (the company is launching a new direct-to-consumer service later this year that will be sold on different tiers, some of which will be bundled with HBO Now), the pressure is on to find its next Game of Thrones (it’s launching a spin-off)–a condition that every other TV and streaming outlet is similarly experiencing.

Which makes it worth recalling that the show’s success was in no way predetermined.

Based on the popular (among geeks, anyway) books by George R.R. Martin, Thrones was a major Hail Mary pass at HBO, which at the time was suffering from a post-Sopranos slump. Put into development by former HBO president Carolyn Strauss, the show was adapted by two novice showrunners, David Benioff and D.B Weiss. When the pilot came in, it was flawed, failing to convey the visual scope of its imaginary world. But Plepler and Lombardo, who by then were running things at HBO, kept the faith, and the rest, as they say is history. 

Fast Company recently spoke with Lombardo and Casey Bloys, the current head of programming at HBO, about the early days of Thrones as seen through the lens of the company. Quotes from Plepler, Benioff, and Weiss are from earlier Fast Company interviews.  

From True Blood to Game of Thrones

Michael Lombardo: We had put on the air True Blood. [It debuted in 2008.] That was way off brand. And it worked for us in the sense of, it got huge numbers. It wasn’t regarded as great, in the pantheon of great shows. But I think it made Game of Thrones even a bigger question mark, because we had never done a genre show like this. A genre show that was clearly going to be expensive. And one that took itself very seriously. There’s no wink in Game of Thrones.

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The pressure was enormous. I mean the pressure was, Oh my God, what happens now? Was HBO just a moment? People had started coining the phrase within the industry ‘HBOver.’ We would hear that. I’m thinking, fuck you.

David Benioff: I had a meeting with Richard Plepler in New York City right before we shot the pilot, or before the pilot had even been green-lit. He had been there for the original pitch meetings, but we just never had had a chance to sit down with Richard before we went into production on the pilot. So I went in and met with him and sort of laid out in broad strokes what we were trying to do with the series. He really got it. Which is impressive. Dan and I come from this fantasy nerd background. We both played Dungeons and Dragons growing up, and we’re obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkien books and all the sort of things you’d expect for a series like this. I don’t think that’s . . . Richard’s much more into politics and Washington. He quickly got what the show was and how, regardless of the effects and the monsters and everything else, it really boils down to power. He just grasped onto that astonishingly quickly.

ML: They spoke to me and my colleagues in a way that the most passionate, sophisticated creators spoke. And that was real and authentic.

But then the pilot came in. 

ML: It came back mildly disappointing. The casting was impeccable. We did recast two significant roles. But the kids, which, you know, had to work–it was unbelievable that these actors who no one had heard of, who didn’t have a great body of work, were really compelling on the screen. The challenge of the piece was there was no scope to it. And so you’re in Dothraki land, and, literally, there’s not one long shot.

Game of Thrones became an even bigger risk for HBO when the BBC, which had originally signed on a production partner, pulled out. With its elaborate sets and huge cast, the show costs a reported $6 million per episode. Now HBO would have to foot the whole bill.

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Richard Plepler: When the BBC pulled out, it was all on us. We made a big bet on Thrones. But I think what Mike and I did was we trusted that quality would find the zeitgeist.

D.B. Weiss: We were not that happy with what we’d done. We knew that it could be better. But for us to make it better than that would have required us to get the go-ahead on the series. We were told by someone who watched it with Richard that when it was done, he stood up and pumped his fist in the air, which was very far from our own reaction to the pilot we had shot. To his credit, he saw through the mistakes that we couldn’t.

Finding its footing

DB: The initial numbers were not that great. We were a little disappointed.

ML: One of the New York Times critics, Gina Bellafante, sort of dismissed it as, ‘I don’t watch that. It’s togas and guys with weapons.’ And it came out on the heels of Spartacus, which was very much that kind of show on Starz. It was about guys with torsos and women with flimsy clothes. And so she sort of lumped it in that category, and it caused us much pain. But we had seen the whole first season. I think the last two episodes of the first season of Game of Thrones are spectacular television. I’m not a genre guy. I’ve never been that guy who goes to see every fantasy film or supernatural film. But this spoke to me and it moved me. And I had to just trust that.

By the end of the first season, ratings had climbed from 2.2 million to over 3 million. 

DB: The ratings slowly climbed as the year went on. The moment we felt it was working was when Ned [Stark, a patriarch on the show] is executed during season one. And it sort of seemed like the internet blew up. We were getting so many emails like, What have you done? The fact that we got that reaction to a fictional character . . .

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DBW: When I saw the video of the guy filming his friend having an eminent freakout over the death of Ned, I knew: This was gonna work.

ML: [Sean Bean] had been on our one-sheets, he had been in the billboards. He was the only actor with any name recognition in the show. I think people were just like, This is not a show that is doing the expected.

Another culture-defining moment came in the third season with the infamous Red Wedding scene, when the Stark heir and matriarch are shockingly murdered along with most of their kin.

Casey Bloys: It just rippled in terms of chatter in the culture. That’s when it felt kind of like, alright, everybody’s got to watch to see what this show does next.

Beyond going on to become HBO’s most successful series in history, Game of Thrones helped redefine the company as a company willing to take creative risks–and spend heavily on those risks. 

CB: Obviously, it’s great to have a show that does the numbers like that. You can promo other shows in and around Game of Thrones. But what has been really great about Game of Thrones is it is an indicator to other talent and other creators of the things that we’re willing to do. I think this is probably the first show that really showed–I mean Sopranos was a really great character piece and showed taking risks with characters. Game of Thrones does that as well, but it’s at a much bigger cinematic scope than we had seen before, and I think television had seen before. And so that is a signal to other people thinking about where they want to do their next show, or where they want to bring their ideas, that we’re a place that not only takes risks creatively, but we also financially support creators.

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ML: I think it did two things. It reinforced both that we were committed to supporting a bold vision, which is ultimately the story of Sopranos and Sex and the City. Those were all bold decisions at their times. This was bold in a slightly different way. I think to writers, to producers, it was a sign that HBO will take chances, they’ll take swings. They bet on people with vision. I think it really reinforced that, but at the same it widened the aperture of what that meant. You didn’t have to just be public television. It didn’t have to just swing for a kind of narrow, niche audience, and a good review in the New Yorker. God bless, you know, I love (New Yorker TV critic) Emily Nussbaum. But that something could also swing for an audience and play around with genres. I think it freed up the notion of what an HBO show could be.

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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