Two nights ago, viewers of the HBO series Game of Thrones paid witness to a massive television event – but just how massive was it?
In terms of today’s media landscape the Red Wedding was a pretty big deal. If you don’t know what it was, then let me tell you. Rob Stark and family/army fall for a trap when trying to make good on his broken oath to marry into the Frey family. The trap is a blood bath that leaves him, his wife, his unborn son, his mother, and his army defenseless and dead. If you haven’t figured it out by now, GoT is the poster child for “killing your darlings” – a term used in writing and storytelling to emphasis that good drama is when characters you love suffer.
The reactions on the Internet have been loud and clear, but can easily be summed into a collective “WTF did I just watch!” One friend’s reaction was to wonder if the Red Wedding was going to be this generation’s Who Shot J.R.? If that isn’t familiar to you, you were probably born too late, but I’ll throw you a bone. J.R. was one of many characters from the hit CBS show, Dallas. Not the 2012 reboot/sequel series, but the original in the 1980s. When he was shot in the “A House Divided” episode of the show, it made the headlines of major newspapers. There’s no doubt it was big effing deal. Anyone who watches Game of Thrones would probably agree with my friend’s statement about the Red Wedding’s significance. I can agree to an extent, but the realist in me has to say that the Red Wedding will not be as culturally significant as J.R. being shot and here’s why.
When J.R. was shot in March 1980, 76,300,000 American households owned a television and a whopping 76% of them were tuned in to watch J.R. take the bullet. It wasn’t just devout fandom either; cable TV was in its infancy back then (showing mostly reruns), so with a handful of network channels Dallas was pretty much the only thing on TV worth watching. By the end of the series, Dallas boasted a viewership of 33.3 million viewers that equated to about 22% of American households. Today it’s hard to find touting numbers like this for hit shows like Game of Thrones. Simply because it doesn’t make sense – especially since it’s on HBO and doesn’t sell ad space to corporations. Luckily if it’s easy to figure out. Nielsen, the media statistics company, estimates that there are 114.7 million American households with a television and 5.2 million of them were tuned into the Red Wedding episode, named “The Rains of Castamere”. For those, like me, who can’t do that math easily in their head, it adds up to 4.541% of television viewers. 60% versus 4.5%. If this were a pizza pie and you were starving, which piece of the pie would you rather?
What made J.R. being shot such a culturally relevant phenomenon was the amount of people who were experiencing it at the same time. The only delay in experience would have been the east and west coast airtime delay. Even then the only way someone in California would have had it spoiled for them is if they had an asshole cousin who was rich enough to pay the long distance fees to ruin it. Today the media landscape is vastly different and is at the heart of why I feel the Red Wedding will not be a cultural milestone for this generation.
First, the series is based off a series of best-selling novels, so readers have diluted the impact by either hinting subtly or loudly with their anticipation for the episode. The east coast/west coast thing is now too hard to ignore. I purposely had to ignore social media until I had finished the episode. No longer does it cost $2 a minute to call from NYC to SF, it’s just a tweet or a status update away. Essentially I’m saying that the experience wasn’t a collective one. It’s been spread out. We are in control of our viewing, so the 5.2 million might not include folks who will watch it OnDemand or with HBO’s online service, HBO GO. Top that with the fact that Game of Thrones also happens to be the most pirated title on illegal torrents. The other reasons are because of the amount of media choices available for consumption. Instead of a handful of channels, we have thousands. Add in the second screen trend, where you watch TV while consuming other media on your laptop or tablet, and you begin to see the picture I’m trying to paint for you.
We will never have another Who shot J.R.? moment in the United States, there’s just too much content out there for the world to consume. At least the Red Wedding will still stand out from the supermassive black hole that is our current media landscape. And for that, I salute its entire Game of Thrones staff and HBO.