June 24, 2011 5:03pm PT by Tim Appelo
5 Reasons Why 'Game of Thrones' Might Win Emmys
Everyone knows HBO's Boardwalk Empire will be on plenty of Emmy ballots, which are due today. But HBO's bolder, stranger epic Game of Thrones may be on more ballots than expected. A Thrones landslide was decidedly unexpected, partly because Emmy often spurns the fantasy genre, as do many mainstream viewers. "Game of Thrones was a little riskier [than Boardwalk]," HBO programming president Michael Lombardo tells THR. "I'm not a genre guy -- what we responded to was compelling storytelling. We knew that we had a bigger job to convince our public. I do think it brought in an audience that didn’t think they would be addicted to a show that has fantasy elements. The characters are so originally drawn, so unpredictable, that it's compelling. The numbers that have shown up have showed that."
Here are five reasons Game of Thrones has got Emmy game:
1. It surprisingly beat Entourage and True Blood's first-season numbers, just as ballots were being filled out. High ratings can actually count against you in Emmy eyes, but Thrones has people saying, "Wait a minute, this weird new thing is huge because it's good. WTF?" Thrones got a late start that could hurt its Emmy odds -- it's on HBO's second, later Emmy screener box. But the wide exposure may mean more potential voters will take an interest. In average gross viewers (not per-episode ratings, but the combined audience for linear plays, DVR and HBO On Demand), Thrones' 8.3 million has soared past Entourage to become HBO's fifth-most-watched original series for most recent seasons -- as popular as Deadwood and Big Love put together. That's remarkable for the first season of a show with dragons in it. Here are HBO's most-recent-season top gross-viewers hits in order (see chart below for the rankings pre-Thrones):
Sex and the City
Game of Thrones
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Six Feet Under
Thrones ended on a series high, critically and numerically. Three million watched Sunday's 9 pm finale, up 37% from the premiere. Boardwalk Empire still looks likely to out-Emmy Thrones. But Boardwalk's buzz peaked months ago, and Thrones' is exquisitely timed. (Below, see HBO's hit series bar chart before Thrones):
2. "It’s shocking, it breaks all conventions of storytelling," says Lombardo. Like Hitchcock in Psycho, co-creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss (adapting George R.R. Martin's novels) are willing to murder a character the audience loves and identifies with. "My wife gets really angry with me when a character she likes dies," says Weiss. But voters often respect such artistic integrity, as long as the plot shock is not contrived, and they love it when bad things happen to good people. "That's what makes it so compelling," says Lombardo. "It lets the viewer understand that anything can happen. I think it’s exciting. It's fresh. It's shocking and disappointing to see a character they’ve grown to love meet an untimely death. It's perfect television."
3. It's smart, and voters like to feel smart. "Game of Thrones is so interesting," says Mary Kay Place, an Emmy voter, past winner, and rival contender on HBO's Big Love and Bored to Death. The sheer complexity of Thones' warring-clans plot may put some voters off, but that's exactly what may win others over. "The sophistication of the TV audience has grown," says Weiss. "Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good for You shows how TV shows of the '50s, '60s, '70s were much simpler, with one through line of plot, then two. Then came the classic HBO shows, and plot threads started multiplying. The fourth season of The Wire is as complex as a novel. I don't think I ever knew every character's name on The Wire, but it didn't matter because you're swept up in the world of it. If you really pay attention, you'l follow it. It's like [PBS's miniseries] Downton Abbey this year -- there may be things in there I'm missing, but you just let yourself get swept away by it." Voters may get swept away by Thrones. "I think our viewer almost demands a level of storytelling that assumes they're paying attention and smart," says Lombardo. "There are shows for everybody that are about relaxing and not paying attention, but when people turn to a scripted show, they want to be not only entertained but also challenged and engaged." With that formula, HBO has dominated Emmy nominations in this century.
"Thrones is definitely not popcorn TV, and not spinach-eat-it-because-it's-good-for-you TV," says Weiss. "It's more like steak TV." Rare and bloody, Thrones could be Emmy's meat.
4. True Blood, the Jackie Robinson of fantasy shows, has made the genre safe for Emmys. "People were very skeptical about True Blood when we launched it, and Game of Thrones," says Lombardo. "At Television Critics Association gatherings people asked, are we abandoning serious storytelling for a genre play? In both instances, they were risks for us." But True Blood broke through commercially, then gradually, grudgingly at first, earned Emmy respect, including last year's nom. Now that fantasy is thinkable to voters, Thrones may benefit by that precedent. It probably benefited by True Blood's success: Thrones' first season average gross viewership of 8.3 million beats True Blood's first season AGV of 7.8 million (last season True Blood grew to 13 million, and it's back on Sunday for a new season). "We believed that both shows would transcend their genres," says Lombardo. "I think it has turned out to be true."
5. Even if Thrones only gets costume Emmys this time, don't count it out for next year. "It can take a while for a genre show to build," says Benioff. "Possibly we're also coming in later in the season, so there are gonna be people who are catching up and hopefully people who hear from other people that it's worth checking out. True Blood took a while to build. I don't mean to make an arrogant comparison, but Lord of the Rings -- that was done amazingly well and wasn't recognized by its academy out of the gate, either."