A full 19.3 million people tuned in to watch the finale of “Game of Thrones” across all HBO platforms Sunday night — a number that outdid the already high expectations for the fantasy phenomenon.
But maybe even more important, the number surpassed another metric far away from pay cable, possibly signaling a historic shift in the process. Pay television is now on the rise in a way it never has been before — and competing with widely available entertainment in a way never thought possible.
First, a little bit on those gargantuan numbers. The 19.3 million was a season high and a series high. (About 13.6 million tuned in to HBO at 9 p.m.; the remainder watched later or on streaming platforms.) It tops the nearly 17.4 million who tuned in to this eighth season’s opener and the 18.4 million who watched the penultimate burn-it-to-the-ground episode.
And compared with other HBO finales, Sunday’s 19.3 million is downright meteoric. “The Sopranos” landed 11.9 million for its series finale in a pre-streaming 2007, while “Sex and the City” drew 10.6 million for Carrie’s return to New York in 2004 — meaning “GoT” nearly doubled the numbers of HBO’s previous biggest hits. That’s a lot, even accounting for the upticks in the U.S. population (about 10 percent) and HBO subscribers (about 20 percent) since those early-2000-era airings.
But merely saying “Game of Thrones” is the biggest pay-cable phenomenon of all time is like saying a dragon has some plans and agency: Everybody knows that now.
The more telling comparison may be with another show, on the very other end of the dial. Just a few days before Bran wound up in power, another giant company was airing the finale of longtime juggernaut. CBS wrapped up “The Big Bang Theory” — 279 episodes of sitcom-y goodness — with the last-ever episode.
That airing? It averaged 18 million total viewers. That’s a nice number on its own. But it is less than “Game of Thrones” streaming-enhanced number, even though as a broadcast show nearly every person in the country could watch it.
Yes, there’s less of a dramatic payoff with the finale for a show like “Big Bang.” And it’s worth noting the “Big Bang” numbers don’t take into account streaming or any repeat airings on the network, as the “Thrones” total does. Still, it’s hard to ignore the trend in recent decades of broadcast finales, a mark of a show’s popularity, sliding down. Way down.
The 1983 finale of “M*A*S*H’ is the most-watched scripted television episode in history, with 105.9 million viewers (nearly half the U.S. population at the time). In the 1990s, “Seinfeld” garnered 76.3 million viewers. And in 2004, 52.5 million gathered around to say goodbye to “Friends.” A steep dip in just two decades.
The numbers continued to drop from there — on CBS, for instance, the “Everybody Loves Raymond” finale drew 33 million just a year later.
You’re starting to see the pattern on this graph. For years, the number of people watching big broadcast send-offs has been dropping along with the rest of network television. And the number of people turning in to pay-cable goodbyes has been rising. On Sunday night, those lines finally crossed.
The debate in industry circles in recent years has been whether traditional television can still flourish in the age of streaming. After all, companies such as Netflix and Apple are upending the model with their spending and new distribution methods. And viewers are more distracted and segmented than ever.
In one sense, the answer is yes. “Game of Thrones” proves that appointment viewing is alive and well even in these fragmented times. What was remarkable about “Thrones” is how it built momentum, episode to episode, season to season, just like a traditional show, eventually culminating in a new high at the start of its last season and an all-time high in its last-ever episode. Also, everyone gathered around at the same time to talk about that episode. That’s as old-school as it comes. (It’s just that thanks to social media we can talk about it with more people.)
In short, anyone looking for hope that Americans will still watch communally have plenty to be heartened by in the “Game of Thrones” viewing patterns.
But in another sense an era has decidedly ended. For a long time, large swaths of people would engage in this kind of communal activity for a show that’s readily available to anyone in the country. They would gather without paying $10 or $15 per month first — without making a purchasing choice in advance of their obsession. Then they would sit through ads (themselves often an event during these shows) to consume it.
For years that kind of viewing was thought innately bigger than the kind people had to pay for, simply by dint of its footprint. As of Sunday night that era is gone.
And like Drogon, it’s probably never coming back.