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AMC Networks Inc (AMCX)’s “Mad Men,” Netflix, Inc. (NFLX)’s “Game of Thrones” and the New Golden Age of Television

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Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones who are still recovering from last week’s action-packed penultimate episode still get one more episode before the season closes out. The season finale of Game of Thrones airs tonight on HBO, closing out a season that’s been not only a smashing critical success, but also a commercial one.

AMC Networks (AMCX)

The reactions from fans after last week’s shocking episode — and the coverage across the media — shows what a cultural phenomenon Game of Thrones has become. Figures released from HBO put Game of Thrones as having the second largest total audience among all of its original programming, behind only The Sopranos, a show that The Writers Guild of America has honored as being the best written television show ever.

With Game of Thrones wrapping up another triumphant season, let’s review the smashing success of the series and what it says about the direction television is headed.

HBO’s next great success story.

A building success story
Game of Thrones has gone through a far more gradual process to becoming an unqualified hit compared with other HBO shows. The show’s development began in early 2007 and had a still-unaired pilot shot in November 2009. Yet the actual show didn’t premiere until April 2011.

The show didn’t begin with the level of hype of other major HBO shows, such as Boardwalk Empire. That show, with its lavish budget — the pilot alone reportedly cost $18 million — and well-known lead actor premiered to an audience of 4.8 million viewers. By contrast, the first episode of Game of Thrones had an audience of 2.2 million.

The largest fear expressed around the time of the series’ creation was that the sprawling world of Game of Thrones would alienate many viewers as the show progressed. Each paperback book in the “Song of Ice and Fire” novel series the TV show is based on is at least 750 pages and features hundreds of characters and an elaborate world that becomes more complex with each novel. Turning such sprawling novels, which are often critiqued for being incoherent in their complexity at times, into 10 hours of television is an enormous challenge.

Yet TV show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss managed to create a show that was true to the source material, yet accessible to those who hadn’t read the books. The positive critical acclaim and buzz around the show led to something rare: It managed to build its audience throughout Season One.

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