As Avengers: Endgame redefines what megahit means for the global theatrical box office, the series finale of HBO’s Game of Thronesmay have been a last hurrah for the collective experience of narrative television.
On Sunday night, the final episode of Game of Thrones was watched by 19.3 million viewers across HBO’s platforms — linear TV, HBO Go, and HBO Now — a record for the network (breaking last week’s record for episode 5, which had 18.4 million viewers). The episode also became the most-watched single telecast when 13.6 million viewers tuned in for the 9 p.m. airing, surpassing the previous high (13.4 million) held by The Sopranos’ season 4 premiere in September 2002.
The Game of Thrones phenomenon is clear in the weekly averages: Season 8 saw nearly 44.2 million viewers per episode in gross audience, says HBO, an increase of more than 10 million viewers when compared to season 7.
Game of Thrones was not always a surefire hit. In 2011, before HBO Now allowed a cable-less generation to stream episodes the night of, the premiere of D.B. Weiss and David Benioff’s blockbuster-sized adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series drew in only 2.2 million viewers. An article posted on New York magazine’s Vulture at the time declared, “Game of Thrones Is No Boardwalk Empire,” but assured fans that despite the meager numbers, “HBO doesn’t live or die by Nielsen’s verdict, and we’re about 98.5 percent certain that the network will green-light a second season.”
In an era splintered by streaming services, the Game of Thrones series finale ratings are a swan song. A Super Bowl can still command unfathomable viewership — January’s Super Bowl LIII drew in 98.19 million eyeballs — while zeitgeist telecasts like the Oscars and the Grammys annually hover between 19 and 30 million. But scripted “event” TV is becoming a thing of the past: The recent season finale of the hit NBC series This Is Us only amounted to 8.2 million. NCIS, the low-key champion of network TV, draws a regular 12 million. The only thing comparable to Thrones (which is still overcoming the stigma of a subscription cost) has been the series finale of the long-running sitcom The Big Bang Theory, whichscored nearly 18 million viewers earlier this month.
Netflix’s caginess over ratings means we’ll never know when a truly major event series rolls around and captivates the nation’s attention, but the final swing from Game of Thrones feels like the end of an era. The series was never going to trounce M*A*S*H’s scripted viewership record — the 1983 finale of that series drew 105.9 million viewers — the Seinfeld finale (76.3 million), or even American Idol in its prime (averaging around 30 million), but for this key moment in the streaming wars, the number of people that Game of Thrones had bend the knee will forever be notable.