A TV Murder Mystery: Who Killed Game of Thrones?

Most of the time, when Hollywood kills off one of its TV shows, we know why. The ratings had been sinking or the talent asked for too much money. (Or recently, it was produced by a rival TV network/conglomerate.)

And yet, HBO killed off Game of Thrones, a TV series that was getting more popular with every season and making its parent company billions in the process. Meanwhile, other long-running series—with worse ratings—from The Simpsons to Grey’s Anatomy to The Walking Dead march on like, well White Walkers. The corpse of Game of Thrones is now—spoiler alert—as cold as Jon Snow’s after season 5.

Why? Who had the motive? And who issued the order?

We Officially Have a Murder Mystery

Frankly, there isn’t a great explanation for why HBO cancelled this series. In the past, I’ve estimated that this series was making an estimated $300 million a season for HBO. (And potentially much more. Read the original, and my director’s commentary here, here and here.) Sure, HBO has a great (on paper) slate premiering the rest of this year and next year, but you know what helps launch a great slate? The biggest show on TV.

Have no doubts this series was growing. The number of viewers rose in every territory that I could find that releases data. Over 44 million were tuning in per episode in America alone, up from 9.3 million in season 1.

GoT Viewership

Of course, in some circles—like HBO creator circles—the story is what matters. Maybe the creators wanted to wrap it up nicely. Except most of the criticism of the last season related to the fact that the series felt rushed. Here is just a sampling of critics and fans complaining that season 8 felt rushed. More episodes and more seasons would have solved this problem, and who knows, by a hypothetical season 9 maybe 50 million people are tuning in in America each year!

Who kills off a money making show? Who are our suspects?

The Suspects

HBO

The buck stops there. So we should start with HBO. Their motive in killing this show would be simple: It’s the most expensive show on television. And since it is already insanely profitable, any additional profits have to be split with talent who are negotiating tougher and tougher deals with more and more back end. Each additional season is less lucrative for HBO, and if the marginal benefits meet the additional costs, well economically HBO should cancel the series.

George R.R. Martin

Listen, George, you’re a part of this. You probably didn’t finish the plot of A Song of Ice and Fire, because if you had, you’d have published that book. Which you haven’t. Maybe you told HBO to stop the series. Or you never provided enough details to fully flesh out 3 to 5 more seasons of the show.

The Actors

When in doubt, blame temperamental actors. Am I right? “Talent” is what you bitterly mumble in Hollywood when you can’t control the situation.

The motives for these suspects—and really I’m talking the big five actors of Jon nee Kit, Cersei nee Leda, Jaime nee Nikola, Daenerys nee Emilia and Tyrion nee Peter—is pretty simple: they’re sick of working on this series. Or more precisely, as artists, they’re ready to make other movies about Greek Gods, Han Solo and Terminators. (Too far?)

Further, even if you don’t mind working on a TV show for the rest of your life—including shoots in both scorching deserts and freezing tundras—you do know how valuable you are. You can’t have a GoT without a Daenerys and Jon Snow/Stark/Targaryen. Knowing that, the actors negotiated phenomenally expensive payments per episode, over $1 million per actor. They also likely demanded higher back end percentages.

The Showrunners

If the actors are sick of this series, imagine the two people at the lonely top of the creative pyramid, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (D&D in Reddit parlance). I can’t describe adequately how insanely time consuming this series was for these two individuals. They wrote a majority of the episodes, supervised the entire production from set design to costumes and oversaw all the editing and post-production; and oh by the way (NFL announcer voice), it was the largest TV production in history. 

Meanwhile, they had plenty of opportunities to do other things, from Star Wars to a new overall deal to ideas in their notebooks we can only imagine. If you’re worth hundreds of millions of dollars (my tentative figure for D&D once they collect GoT royalties), do you want to keep spending your winters in Iceland and dealing with the most demanding fans in television history? That would be enough to say, “Eight seasons and we’re done!”

AT&T

Is there a thing that AT&T hasn’t managed to screw up since it acquired Time-Warner turned into Warner Media? Since taking over, they’ve lost the head of their movie studio, the head of HBO and plenty of other executives. Meanwhile, they named their new streaming service HBOMax, which was universally derided, and DirecTV is hemorrhaging subscribers. Oh, and AT&T is the most indebted company in America. Maybe they killed GoT to keep the losses from piling up. 

Netflix

When you discuss TV on the internet, you’re contractually obligated to mention Netflix at least once. While we give Netflix a lot of credit and blame for, they’re not involved here. 

The Evidence

Like a detective in Law & Order, it’s time to interview the witnesses. Which in this case means various articles that describes the suspect’s state of mind. Supply your own “dum dum”.

Exhibit 1 – The Actors

Frankly, they’re all over the place. Most journalists were busy pestering the actors for how we would feel—we being the fans—about the conclusion. But the few times they did ask about the series ending, some of the actors seemed happy to keep filming. Maisie Williams said, “I don’t think anyone wants it to end.” 

Indeed, it wasn’t like filming Game of Thrones kept the actors from working on other projects, as most had time to film at least one movie each year, as I sarcastically linked to above. 

Exhibit 2 – HBO’s Casey Bloys Testimony

So let’s talk to the boss about it. Specifically, HBO’s head of programming Casey Bloys, who did quite a few interviews the last week on Game of Thrones in lieu of Benioff & Weiss. In one telling interview, Lesley Goldberg of The Hollywood Reporter pushed him more than any other reporter on why it ended. Here are the telling quotes:

IMAGE 2 Quote THR

He gives another clue later in the interview, when he says he wouldn’t have considered any other showrunners to helm the show, and said neither would the actors. Still, he hasn’t actually said who made the decision to end the show. Simply that the showrunners had a plan, and that he would have taken more episodes and subtle hints to ask another question.

Hmm. So let’s go to the showrunners.

Exhibit 3 – D&D Talking About It

As I said, Benioff and Weiss haven’t spoken publicly since the last Game of Thrones episode debuted. They went into seclusion. (Even ducking a Comic-Con session at the last minute.) Before the season, though, they spoke with Entertainment Weekly—as they did every year—and didn’t talk about who made the decision to end the series, just that they planned it this way:

IMAGE 3 DW Quote

Which seems pretty definitive. If they’ve known how the story was going to end, then they gave us a story that required eight seasons, no more. Still, with my detective hat on, I’m picking up some evasion. We’re not getting the whole story from these two…

Exhibit 4 – George R.R. Martin’s Testimony

Much like those Law and Order detectives from above, we’ve been on the run around. No one will admit they didn’t want the show to end or they were the ones who killed it. We need a witness to flip. And well on the red carpet, to Variety, GRRM did:

IMAGE 5

Not HBO. Not Casey Bloys. Not himself or even the actors. But D&D. Does this make sense?

Follow the Money

In the words of Lester Freaman of The Wire, “Follow the money.” You want to know who’s in charge? See who’s getting paid.

In this case, last week the entertainment press was flooded with the TV industry equivalent of a widow cashing a $2 million dollar life insurance policy a few months after their spouse dies in mysterious circumstances. Or should I say, a $200 million life insurance policy.

Screen Shot 2019-08-15 at 10.46.27 AM

The key is they couldn’t have signed such a rich overall deal while Game of Thrones was still living and breathing. I’d make the same argument about the Star Wars trilogy. Disney needed that in 2022, and couldn’t wait to pay them to make those films. I see two scenarios, then:

– Scenario 1: They do the right thing and make GoT 10 seasons of 10 episodes; 

– Scenario 2: They do what they did and shorten seasons 7 & 8 to 13 episodes, and end after 8 seasons.

Using those basic facts, here’s my assumptions about how much they would have made in two scenarios

Assumptions.png

Again, the above table is only the marginal benefit in each scenario. So they made more money from their per episode fees this year, but that would be included in both scenarios. The back end is the trickiest part. To estimate it, I used the last year’s profit margin with a 10% growth rate. Here’s my back of the envelop table:

Screen Shot 2019-08-15 at 12.02.15 PM

Using some quick back of the envelope math, Benioff & Weiss had $140 million reasons to kill Game of Thrones early. That’s a pretty big reason.

My Theory of the Case

So who officially tied Game of Thrones to pulled an Olly on poor Game of Thrones? Like the Nights Watch betraying their leader, a few people share the blame. 

Benioff & Weiss share most of the blame. They’re the Alliser Thorne of this situation. The masterminds. Game of Thrones was a demanding series that was likely burning them out creatively, and they had more stories to tell. But more than anything, as soon as it ended they could make three Star Wars movies and an overall deal with Netflix. 

I guess that means I dismissed Netflix too soon. By dangling hundreds of millions in front of our showrunners, they helped end this series.

Though, I’d say that HBO and head of programming have some blood on their hands too. HBO considers one of its strategic advantages to be its relationship with showrunners. It wants to be “creator friendly” and it is still one of the truly best places at that. (For now, with AT&T taking over who knows if that lasts.) It didn’t want to anger Benioff & Weiss—it was in the running for the overall deal for much of the last year—and didn’t want that to filter out to the community. They may not have stabbed Game of Thrones to death, but they watched D&D do it.

Still, I think we can safely say that Benioff & Weiss killed Game of Thrones.

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