Game of Thrones ended its eight-season run in 2019 as HBO’s most watched series ever and arguably the biggest show on all of television at that time.
It would be foolish to expect the first GoT follow-up, House of the Dragon, to come out of the gate at those levels. The prequel could, however, challenge the numbers for Game of Thrones’ beginning — thanks in part to the successful ground its predecessor already paved.
Game of Thrones ended its run by averaging just under 12 million viewers for its initial airing on HBO and a staggering 44 million across all platforms over the course of its eighth and final season. It grew its audience in every season, a nearly unheard of feat for a series that ran as long as it did. But it didn’t start out as a world-beater.
GOT’s series premiere on April 17, 2011, drew 2.22 million viewers the night it aired and stayed fairly close to that for the bulk of its 10-episode run. It averaged 2.52 million same-day viewers for the season, ranging from a low of 2.2 million for episode two to a high of 3.04 million for the season finale — solid but hardly earth-shattering numbers for HBO at that time.
By comparison, season four of True Blood — which debuted a week after Thrones ended — averaged just under 5 million viewers per week for HBO, according ton Nielsen figures. Season two of AMC’s The Walking Dead was the top scripted show on cable in 2011 with an average 7.26 million viewers.
HBO said that over the course of its full run, season one of Game of Thrones averaged 9.3 million viewers across all platforms — including on-air replays, DVR and on-demand viewing and the limited streaming options that were available then. (HBO’s streaming property at the time, HBO Go, required users to prove they were already HBO subscribers.)
Given the built-in interest for Game of Thrones and HBO’s extensive marketing for House of the Dragon, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise — though it would be noteworthy — if Sunday’s premiere matched or beat the on-air viewership for GoT. That’s largely due to Thrones itself: The last season had more than its share of detractors, but, again, was a massive hit. Even three years later and amid somewhat more mixed reviews than the nearly all thumbs-up appraisal of Thrones’ first season, interest on Sunday is likely to be high.
Whether House of the Dragon can match its predecessor will depend partly on whether its viewers behave the same way they did during Thrones’ run. Despite the growth in streaming options over the course of its life (HBO Now launched in 2015), Game of Thrones remained appointment viewing for its on-air premieres as well. Over all eight seasons, the show’s first night, on-air viewership made up about 31 percent of its eventual total.
Now, shows like Euphoria and Succession get less than 10 percent of their eventual audience from that first airing on cable. If House of the Dragon follows that pattern, it’s unlikely to match the on-air numbers for Thrones’ series debut (though its multi-platform tally could). If more people than usual access the show via HBO on cable rather than HBO Max, however, the linear numbers will obviously get closer to those of the parent show.
If House of the Dragon does manage to near or break 2 million on-air viewers Sunday, it would be a pretty rare occurrence in the current cable environment. Among cable scripted shows, only Paramount Network’s megahit Yellowstone averaged better than 2 million same-day viewers this season (by a lot: It averaged 7.84 million). The Walking Dead’s final season has only topped 2 million initial viewers once, for its premiere a year ago. The series finale of Better Call Saul earlier this week had 1.8 million same-day viewers, its best mark since its third season finale in 2017.
The massive shifts in both the way people watch TV and the business models at the companies who make TV mean that first night ratings for any series are likely to be just a small percentage of that show’s eventual audience. That will probably be the case for House of the Dragon too. The question is whether its Game of Thrones pedigree will give it a head start in collecting those viewers.
How ‘House of the Dragon’ Could Beat ‘Game of Thrones’ in Ratings (at First)