That phrase – “viewers around the world” – hasn’t applied to television premieres before. For most of its history, television has been a profoundly national medium. While shows like “Dallas,” “Baywatch” and “The Simpsons” all drew large global audiences, international television trade required delays: A television series could air in different countries, but it often happened months – even years – after it would air in its country of origin.
As I explore in my book “We Now Disrupt This Broadcast: How Cable Transformed Television and the Internet Revolutionized It All,” many of those practices have changed in recent years. It’s now possible for a series to release new episodes for viewers around the world, and the result is a global watercooler – a shared media culture that transcends national boundaries.
While you might think that Netflix or Amazon Video would have an advantage, it’s an HBO show – “Game of Thrones” – that’s at the forefront of this phenomenon.
Building a global fan base
Even in a golden era of television production, “Game of Thrones” stands out. HBO spends lavishly on the series – beyond what most other networks can afford – and the result is a visually breathtaking product.
Its fantasy setting takes place in a world that isn’t geographically or culturally distinctive to the U.S., which also broadens audience appeal. Television shows that aren’t country-specific – miniseries such as “The Odyssey” and “Gulliver’s Travels” – tend to be among the most successful in international trade. There was also a built-in global fan base from the popular series of novels that inspired the show.
“Game of Thrones,” however, didn’t start out as a global blockbuster.
HBO debuted the show in 2011 for its U.S. cable channel. Following standard practice, the network sold the series to channels around the world that would air the series with the typical delay. For example, Canal+ airs it in France, Sky Atlantic airs it in Italy and Foxtel airs it in Australia. There are also several HBO branded channels around the globe such as HBO Canada, HBO Central Europe, and HBO Asia. Some are owned fully or in part by HBO’s parent company; others just license the name.
By 2014 “Game of Thrones” had become the network’s biggest hit. But as the show’s popularity grew, so did its rates of piracy. While unauthorized access of video is difficult to measure with certainty, many called the series the most pirated show in the world.
How HBO pulled it off
We’d expect changes wrought by the internet to have played a key role. They did, but not in the way you’d expect. HBO didn’t use the internet to distribute “Game of Thrones” to subscribers around the world like Netflix and Amazon Video have done with their series. Instead, the internet was important to the series’ global growth because of the opportunities it gave fans to interact with one another.
The intricate, surprising storylines on “Game of Thrones” inspired instant dissection and analysis on social media feeds. This encouraged fans in TV markets outside of the U.S. to seek out unauthorized video sources: It was the only way they could avoid spoilers. While news stories about the high rates of piracy highlighted the popularity of the series – a form of free promotion – HBO certainly would prefer viewers to watch through authorized channels. Eliminating the delay in access was one solution.
In 2015, just before the start of its fifth season, HBO announced that it had deals in 170 markets around the world to air new episodes simultaneously with its U.S. broadcast. This was not unprecedented. “Dr. Who” did the same in 2013 with a 94-country simulcast in honor of its 50th anniversary – a one-time event.
Arguably no network other than HBO could have pulled it off.
Because HBO is both the producer and distributor of the series, it can adjust the timing of its international availability. Making shows (the job of studios) and presenting them to audiences (the job of channels) are two different businesses, and their interests don’t perfectly align. If a different studio produced “Game of Thrones” for HBO, the studio might be too concerned that the simulcast would diminish its ability to sell the series to other distributors. Moreover, HBO had significant international reach and relationships that provided it with a direct pipeline to viewers outside the U.S.
Not the new normal – for now
While HBO has shown that global TV blockbusters are now possible, they aren’t likely to become common practice. Internet-distributed services that are building a global subscriber base – such as Netflix and Amazon Video – have a clear advantage in this regard. They have customers around the world and can act as the producer and distributor of their series or negotiate for worldwide rights. It’s notable, however, that neither has succeeded in creating a true blockbuster hit. For example, Netflix’s “Marco Polo” had a huge budget and a premise that appealed to audiences around the world. But it never caught on.
While blockbusters can be incredibly lucrative, there’s no magic formula for making one. The odds of success are far greater when making series that speak specifically to the cultural experiences of people in individual countries or with particular tastes.
Once Netflix and Amazon Video have firmed up a strong subscriber base outside of the U.S. with local programming, look for them to also wade into the risky – but rewarding – business of global blockbusters.