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Why ‘Game of Thrones’ is bigger than the Oscars and the Super Bowl (for the media business)

A tour of the vast “Game of Thrones” Media Industrial Complex.

Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” HBO
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

At 9 pm ET last night, HBO kicked off the new season of “Game of Thrones,” its most valuable franchise.

And 61 minutes later, the rest of the media industry kicked off their coverage of “Game of Thrones.” Because “Game of Thrones” is almost as valuable to the rest of the media industry as it is to HBO.

That meant that in Sydney, Australia, Jenna Guillaume, BuzzFeed’s lead “Game of Thrones” writer — partly because she loves “Game of Thrones,” partly because geography means she can write about it on a Monday morning instead of a Sunday night — started writing “The Opening Scene Of The "Game Of Thrones" Premiere Was Fucking Epic.” It was the first of five posts she would write about the episode.

Meanwhile, in London, Guillaume’s colleague Andy Golder was writing up BuzzFeed’s official recap. Not surprisingly, it was a 61-item list; a bit surprisingly, only two items were dedicated to Ed Sheeran. BuzzFeed’s editors think they will end up generating at least 10 posts in the first 24 hours of the season, with contributions from writers around the world.

In Los Angeles, The Ringer started streaming “Talk the Thrones,” an hour-long “after show” starring “Games of Thrones” fans/writers from Bill Simmons’s site. Twitter carried the show live; Verizon sponsored the stream.

Meanwhile, a handful of publications, including the New York Times and Vanity Fair, whose writers had seen an embargoed screening of the first episode, were able to publish their recaps immediately after the credits started rolling.

Opening thought from Times recapper Jeremy Egner: “If you have designs on a dynasty, the first thing you have to do is get yourself a sweet map.”

Rani Molla / Recode

“GOT” isn't the biggest show on TV. Nielsen says it averaged 10.6 million viewers a week in its last season, which means it’s not even a Top 10 show. (HBO’s accounting, which includes views from sources Nielsen doesn’t track, like HBO Now and DVRs, pegs its audience at 25.7 million.)

But for media outlets that aren’t HBO, “Game of Thrones” is the peakest Peak TV. The millions who do watch the show are ravenous to unpack its dense plotting and sprawling cast of characters. And they are eager to hear competing theories about what’s coming next. They also delight in watching themselves watch “Games of Thrones.”

Chances are, if you publish something about “Game of Thrones,” someone will read it.* So any “Games of Thrones” content is good content, and the more “Game of Thrones” content, the better.

“It’s bigger for us than the Super Bowl or the Oscars, because it extends for so long,” said Kerry Lauerman, Mic’s executive news director.

There isn’t currently anything else analogous to the “Game of Thrones” Media Industrial Complex: It’s a prerecorded show that will run for nearly two months, focusing media attention every night it airs — and will continue to generate attention long after it runs.

The run-up for this summer’s episodes — technically, this is the show’s “last” season; in the real world, that means HBO will show seven episodes this summer and then another installment in a year or so — has been going on for months.

In May, when HBO distributed a trailer for the show, it generated 61 million views in the first day, and 100 million total. This crude countdown clock to last night’s episode didn’t even work, and it still generated 3.6 million views.

And the show’s six-season archive gives publishers plenty to chew on/monetize even when there isn’t a new show to dissect. This summer, The Ringer unveilled “Binge Mode,” a 60-episode podcast dedicated to discussing all 60 “Game of Thrones” episodes that had already aired.

Do people really listen to new podcasts about a show that first aired six years ago? Yes they do, says Ringer Editor in Chief Sean Fennessey, who says the series is the publisher’s fastest-growing podcast franchise.**

And if you like that one, Apple has at least two dozen other “Game of Throne” series available via its Podcast store.

Cersei Lannister sits on the iron throne with her brother/lover Jaime standing beside her. HBO

But the main focus for most publishers is the weekly recap, or recaps, they create for each of this season’s episodes.

In the case of last night’s episode, a few outlets got an early look last week. But in general, every publisher has at least one person who spends Sunday night (or Monday morning, depending on where they live) watching the show live, then furiously writing up a summary/analysis piece, which runs anywhere from minutes to hours after the show airs.

It’s the kind of work that attracts people who are both obsessive fans and nimble media creators. Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson, one of the best and best-read “Thrones” recappers, spends every Sunday night watching the show on two screens. She spends most of her time watching the show on her TV, but uses a separate stream on a laptop so she can capture particular scenes for GIFs she’ll incorporate into her recap.

Robinson says she’s usually able to get her first post up within 15 or 20 minutes after the show airs. She’ll create a second one — “something a little more thoughtful” — within 90 minutes after that.

Most recappers emphasize speed — “It’s a depressing way to talk about culture writing, but it is a race against the clock,” Robinson says — but then again, anyone can quickly summarize a show.

So the ones that truly stand out offer interesting analysis, or promise to unearth something on an episode that most people missed.

The best-performing recap on Mashable last year took readers through a byzantine discussion of succession rules before determining that Cersei could end up sitting on the Iron Throne. She did, and that post generated 1.2 million unique views.


And while Sunday night is primetime for the recapping business, publishers say “Games of Thrones” interest carries on strongly through Monday and Tuesday, as “GOT” fans use their sites, along with Twitter, Facebook, etc., as a digital watercooler to share reactions and theories.

On Tuesday, the Times will start publishing a weekly “pop-up” “GOT” newsletter filled with some of its stuff, as well as “the internet’s best articles on that week’s episode.”

The big question hanging over all of the publishers mining “Game of Thrones” today: What happens when winter finally does come and the show goes off the air?

The reflexive answer from some “GOT” watchers is: “We hope there are good spinoffs.” More skeptical ones coalesce around the grim theory that “GOT” may be the last Truly Big Show.

“It feels like one of the last, big non-fractured TV shows,” said Gilbert Cruz, the Times’ TV editor. “I don’t know what replaces it.”

* Why, maybe even someone will read this story about people reading stories about “Game of Thrones.”

** And no, he didn’t attach numbers to that one.

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