HBO conjuring fantasy series

'Game of Thrones' pilot reps rare foray into the genre for busy cabler

HBO has given a pilot order to the fantasy project "A Game of Thrones."

The program is based on George R.R. Martin's best-selling "A Song of Fire & Ice" series of novels and executive produced by David Benioff ("Troy") and D.B. Weiss ("Halo"). The title is from the first novel in the series.

If it gets an episodic order, "Thrones" would represent the rarest of TV genres: a full-fledged fantasy series.

Although broadcasters have embraced sci-fi-tinged shows in recent years following the success of ABC's "Lost" and NBC's "Heroes," and supernatural themes have been given a spin by the CW's "Supernatural" and HBO's own "True Blood," high fantasy is nearly nonexistent in primetime TV history — and "Thrones" is an unabashed member of the genre. The books have swords, dragons, magic, the works.

"Fantasy is the most successful genre in terms of feature films, given the incredible popularity of the 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Harry Potter' movies," Benioff said. "High fantasy has never been done on TV before, and if anybody can do it, it's HBO. They've taken tired genres and reinvented them — mobsters in 'The Sopranos' and Westerns with 'Deadwood.' "

The cost of producing a fantasy series usually is a factor that deters networks. The producers note that "Thrones" is written as a character drama and major battles often take place offstage.

"It's not a story with a million orcs charging across the plains," Weiss said. "The most expensive effects are creature effects, and there's not much of that."

Martin plans seven books. If HBO picks up the project to series, the producers intend for each novel to encompass a season.

But before the series can get on the air, the producers first have to slay a threat more formidable than any dragon: pilot competitors. HBO has 10 other pilots in contention for series orders. Though the network declines to project how many shows will receive an order since HBO doesn't need to fill a specific number of time periods as do broadcasters, at least six are expected to get a pickup.

Also, the success of "True Blood" may work in "Thrones' " favor. HBO has always sought to defy any sort of specific genre branding for its network, emphasizing that each project is judged on its own merits. Yet given how the vampire drama continues to gain viewers and how Showtime's swords-and-monarchy historical drama "The Tudors" has performed, it's not unreasonable to believe the network may see "Thrones" as a good fit.

Previous fantasy titles on TV are few and far between. ABC's "Pushing Daisies" might qualify as a member of the genre, though its fantastical elements are wrapped in a modern-day crime procedural. ABC Family's "Kyle XY" could fit. Some would consider the WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fantasy, though supernatural drama is probably a more appropriate term. Former syndicated program "Xena: Warrior Princess," however, is firmly in the genre, and NBC's upcoming "Kings" also qualifies. (partialdiff)