TV Long View: The Rise — and Continued Growth — of 'Game of Thrones'

Game of Thrones-Publicity Still-H 2019
Macall B. Polay/HBO

There are a lot of ways in which Game of Thrones occupies a unique place in the TV landscape — the immense scale of its production, the sprawling number of characters, the dragons.

It also stands out in this way: Every season of the HBO series thus far has increased the size of its audience over the last one.

Put simply, that doesn't happen — at least not for as long a period of time as it has for Game of Thrones. At least in recent TV history, no Nielsen-measured show has sustained season-to-season growth over as many years. Several other shows, among them The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and NCIS, have made year-to-year gains across five seasons (or six, if you count the split final season of Breaking Bad as two separate entities). But The Walking Dead and NCIS eventually declined, and Breaking Bad ended.

With the final season approaching Sunday, and oceans of ink and pixels already devoted to analyzing what's already happened and what might happen, it wouldn't be a huge surprise were Game of Thrones to pull off that feat yet again.

The bar is now very high, however: Season seven averaged a Nielsen-measured 10.26 million viewers for initial airings, a 33 percent jump over a 7.69 million for the previous season. HBO's all-in viewership figure for last season — including on-air replays, DVR and on-demand viewing and streaming — is 32.8 million, 28 percent higher than season six's 25.7 million.

To put that in perspective, Game of Thrones' 10.26 million same-day audience from 2017 would rank fifth on all of Nielsen-rated TV in the current season. There is literally no comparison for the rolled-up number of 32.8 million, as networks don't regularly release multiplatform data (and broadcast nets don't have the real estate to air an episode multiple times a week). It's safe to say, though, that Game of Thrones is among the very biggest shows on TV.

The advent of multiple ways to watch a show has certainly helped Game of Thrones thrive, but even as HBO's streaming portals have grown in recent years, the percentage of viewers who watch the night an episode airs has remained fairly steady.

Over its seven seasons, about 32 percent of Game of Thrones' total audience has watched the show on HBO's flagship channel the night it airs. That figure has never been higher than 36 percent (for season four), and its low point of 27.1 percent came in season one — when streaming options were more limited. The show's first season debuted a year into the life of HBO Go, which requires a cable subscription (or a borrowed password from someone who has one), and four years before stand-alone streaming service HBO Now launched.  

HBO has about 49 million subscribers in the U.S., so there is a ceiling to how many people it can reach. Going into its final season, however, Game of Thrones hasn't found it yet.

Game of Thrones' season by season ratings are below.

Season Initial airing viewers (millions) Total viewers* (millions) % of total from initial airing
1 2.52 9.3 27.1%
2 3.8 11.6 32.8%
3 4.7 14.4 32.6%
4 6.84 19.1 35.8%
5 6.88 20.2 34.1%
6 7.69 25.7 29.9%
7 10.26 32.8 31.3%

*Includes replays, DVR and on-demand viewing and streaming. Sources: Nielsen, HBO

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