For most of a decade, Game of Thrones was one of the biggest spectacles on TV, in just about every sense of the word. The epic fantasy featured a giant ensemble cast, vast sets and locations, and massive CGI dragons. Perhaps not as massive as the shelves holding all of the show's Emmys and other awards, but massive all the same. For HBO in particular, Game of Thrones was a godsend when it came to bringing in huge ratings and audience numbers, even with its polarizing final season. And as one might have expected, not having the Starks and Lannister around anymore in 2020 was a major (and mostly negative) change for the cable channel's stats.
Despite the fact that HBO definitely had some top-notch original shows for subscribers to dig into in 2020 – from His Dark Materials' second season to I May Destroy You to Lovecraft Country – it was abundantly obvious that the lack of Game of Thrones led to an audience exodus. According to Variety, 2020 saw HBO losing over half of its viewers that fall into the always-coveted 18-49 age demographic, which is a big loss for a channel that has to lean back on premium costs to keep things afloat.
HBO is obviously no longer riding (relatively) high on the list of top-rated networks. Its ranking in the 2020 list is #46, drawing an average of just 119,000 viewers in the 18-49 age range. That marks an all around 52% drop from the 2019 average, which is a pretty stunning fall from grace. The network definitely fared the worst of any in that Top 50, and the only other channels that came close to that margin were The CW (-40%), which had to rely on second-run imports in lieu of its delayed Arrowverse-heavy schedule, and VH1 (-42%). Meanwhile, cable news networks like CNN and Fox News enjoyed humongous increases, rising up 95% and 71% respectively.
HBO fared only slightly better in terms of total viewership stats, sitting at #46 when compared to all other linear TV networks. Its average audience through 2020 reached 387,000, which marked a 38% drop in viewers. At least that percentage drop wasn't the biggest on the list, with networks such as Nicktoons and MLB Network ranking lower. Of course, those networks' audiences weren't nearly as big as HBO's to begin with. More comparatively, other premium cable channels like Starz, Cinemax and Showtime also lost double-digit percentages in total viewers, so the pattern wasn't limited to just HBO for sure.
To be sure, it wasn't ONLY Game of Thrones' exit that led to HBO's viewership drop-off, even though the show was definitely a boon to other original series while it was airing. 2020 was obviously a trash-fire of a year, and it's likely that quite a few subscribers had to drop the service to save money for one of many reasons. As well, the launch of HBO Max definitely drew some customers away from linear subscriptions over to the streaming side of things, especially with high-volume shows such as Friends and Big Bang Theory driving part of that influx.
But considering how huge Game of Thrones was when it was airing, HBO was definitely feeling some sore spots once it was gone. Thankfully for fans, the network is gearing up the first follow-up series, the prequelized House of the Dragon, which only recently unveiled a first look to get audiences hyped to take a look back at this world long before Jon Snow was around to know nothing.
Time will tell how HBO will fare going into 2021 and beyond, but more Game of Thrones-related programming can only help, right? Or maybe just more shows with dragons? Either way, head to our Winter and Spring 2021 TV premiere schedule to see what new and returning shows are on the way soon.
Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.
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