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Who Will Win the Battle for the next “Game of Thrones”? : Where We’ve Been

 

(This is another entry to a multi-part series answering the question: “Who will win the battle to make the next Game of Thrones?” Previous articles are here:

Part I: The Introduction and POCD Framework
Appendix: Licensed, Co-Productions and Wholly-Owned Television Shows…Explained!
Appendix: TV Series Business Models…Explained! Part 1
Appendix: TV Series Business Models…Explained Part 2
Appendix: Subscription Video Economics…Explained Part 1
)

A trope of genre fiction is the character with unfinished business. The lone wolf who harbors a grudge against someone or something that harmed his family, destroyed his life or stole his (or her) kingdom. 

July was “unfinished business” month at The Entertainment Strategy Guy headquarters. I’ve started quite a few series and let news or time distract me from finishing them.  Having checked back in on “Should Your Film Go Straight to Netflix?”, “Coronavirus Impact on Entertainment” and “The Star Wars 2019 Business Report”, it’s time to return to a series that’s over a year old, diving into a deliciously provocative topic: which TV series will make the most money for its streamer, the next Game of Thrones or the next Lord of The Rings?

Why didn’t this series get finished? Two reasons. First, I got severely distracted by explaining all the math behind my models as I was building them. This resulted in five articles that were essentially “appendices”. (Seriously, if you want to understand the economics of streaming TV, check them out.) Second, pulling the data on past fantasy TV series and movies took longer than I anticipated.

No more! Today I’ll review:

– A summary of this series so far.
– An update on the news in “fantasy TV” since last summer.

Summary of Where We Were

Cue the narrator voice for a genre series returning after a two year hiatus: “Previously, on GoT vs LoTR vs Narnia”. My challenge is about as difficult: explain a several thousand word series in a few hundred words. 

This series was inspired by the general rise in fantasy programming at all the streamers. It wasn’t just Amazon that wanted the next Game of Thrones, so did Netflix and Disney+ and even HBO itself. I framed the question as:

Which franchise will make the most money for its streamer in the future, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia?

My initial assessment—what I call a “Blink” look—is that HBO will win. Frankly, they paid way less than Amazon. (Initially described as a $250 million dollar deal for Amazon.) Then I heard that Amazon guaranteed 5 seasons! That’s at least $1.25 billion, and maybe more. That only gives the edge even further to HBO. At first, I didn’t really consider Netflix a viable competitor. (I was wrong.)

Then I moved onto the analysis. Which means building models to see what they tell us. The basic formula is pretty simple:

(The probability of success X The revenue upside in success ) — Costs = Likelihood of money made

The tricky part is calculating all that. To explain it, I’m using the “POCD” framework: 

People
Opportunity
Context
Deal

It’s a framework from the venture capital world, but I’m applying it uniquely to TV series. Essentially, people, opportunity and context describe how much revenue a company can make, and the deal explains the costs. 

I’ll make a bespoke model for every series under consideration using the various POCD inputs to change the probabilities or potential revenue/costs. I explained the TV profit model here and here, and also explained the tricky nature of streaming video economics here. (Those last two articles laid the ground work for my series on “The Great Irishman Project”.)

Then came the distraction. Since I had built this kick-ass TV series business model, I decided to use it on the original Game of Thrones. In a big piece published on Decider, I estimated how much money I thought GoT had brought in for HBO. (A whopping $2 billion plus.) This provides terrific context for the “upside” of all these fantasy series. (I wrote a few “director’s commentaries” for this article too.)

So that’s where my series left off. But the news didn’t end just because the series was delayed.

All The News Since Last Summer

When I started this series, I focused on three fantasy series based on arguably the three most influential fantasy books of all time…

Game of Thrones prequel (HBO)
Lord of the Rings prequel (Amazon)
Chronicles of Narnia (Netflix)

 Since then a few fantasy series have come out…

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix)
Carnival Row (Amazon)
His Dark Materials (HBO)
The Witcher (Netflix)

And more have been developed or are in production…

The Wheel of Time (Prime Video)
Sandman (Netflix)
– Untitled Beauty and the Beast (Disney+)

If all those qualify for this battle, we’re up to 10 potential contenders for the replacement for Game of Thrones. And that doesn’t include potential series (Disney’s Book of Enchantments and Lionsgate’s The Kingkiller Chronicles) that died in development. And I haven’t even looked at Syfy’s lineup to see what else could qualify. (The incomparable Magicians just ended after their fifth season. Pay attention to that data point for later.) 

The Specific Updates

HBO and Game of Thrones prequel

In one of the more fascinating single day development moves, HBO both cancelled one prequel series (The Long Night/Bloodmoon) and announced another prequel series about the Targaryens (set about 300 years before GoT) called House of Dragons. I could spin this as good or bad for HBO, but either way their series is still happening. Right now, HBO is saying the prequel will arrive in 2022.

Amazon and Lord of the Rings prequel

Amazon meanwhile is furthest ahead, having started production this spring in New Zealand, only to be another Covid-19 casualty. (Though I believe production is set to start production soon or already has.) Amazon was under time pressure to get a TV series in production within two years, and that appears to have motivated the streamer.

Netflix and Chronicles of Narnia

If you search for Chronicles of Narnia and Netflix, you run into a series of articles asking, “Is this thing still happening?” And no one really knows. Netflix insists it is, and Entertainment One has hired a “creative architect”, but there is no release date or known shooting schedule. Which means we’re going to drop this series from our main contenders for another lower down.

The Dark Crystal and Carnival Row 

I’d describe these two series and “came and went” at Netflix and Amazon (respectively). Like the Magicians, these two series demonstrate that not every fantasy series is a guaranteed blockbuster. Though the former was arguably more popular due to the “Netflix Effect”. Still, neither is set to be the next Game of Thrones. 

HBO and His Dark Materials

As one of HBO’s first “Monday premieres”, this series was overwhelmed by Watchmen in terms of buzz. It has a better chance than either of the two previous series at being a future Game of Thrones, but the odds of that are pretty low.

The Witcher on Netflix

And now we have a legitimate contender! Lots of folks pointed out that I should have dropped Narnia for The Witcher when I first started this series. Indeed, The Witcher may have single handedly helped Netflix meet subscriber targets by releasing right at the end of 2019. It is arguably Netflix’s first or second biggest show currently on the air. (With the acknowledgement that “on the air” is an anachronism.) In other words, The Witcher has a great chance to be the next Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile, I’m going to monitor every other fantasy series that pops up in development or production. (For example, Amazon’s Wheel of Time series has promise.)

Now that we know where we’ve been, and what’s happened since, we can move into our four-part framework for predicting which of these series will win the battle. Tomorrow, we’ll continue with the first letter in our framework, P for People.

Most Important Story of the Week – 8 Aug 20: Hotstar, Star, Hulu and the Perils/Promises of International Growth

We’ve ended the “Asterisk Extraordinaire Earnings Season”. Giant tech companies did well; lots of other folks did poorly; what happens in the future is up in the air. 

One company that did particularly poorly was The Walt Disney Company, which wasn’t much of a surprise, given that all their theme parks were closed, so were the theaters they use to release their big budget films and their flagship channel ESPN didn’t have live sports. No company was more exposed to “quarantine of everything” than Disney. Well, maybe Live Nation. (Of course, since Disney beat their “expectations” their stock price went up.)

The story that caught my eye–and many folks on Twitter as well–was the news about Disney’s plans for Hotstar. Which is unique enough to be my…

Most Important Story of the Week – Star (nee Hotstar), Hulu and the Perils/Promises of International Growth

The news is Disney plans to turn Hotstar into a global streaming service.

For those who don’t know, Hotstar is an Indian SVOD company that was part of 21st Century Fox and the Murdoch empire. It is owned by Star in India, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Disney. Lots of insiders noted at the time that while Fox had a lot of buzzy assets (Simpsons, X-Men films, FX), Hotstar could have been the secret, undervalued asset since it’s the biggest streamer in India, despite fierce foreign competition.

Indeed, when Disney launched Disney+ in India, they used Hotstar to give it a boost. To simplify, Hotstar is to India what Hulu is to America: a broad general entertainment service. India, then, is another example of Disney using multiple streaming services to provide a general entertainment bundle. (Star also has lots of sports rights.) 

The news this week is that Disney plans to use Hotstar–referring to it as “Star” in their earnings report, presumably the new global name–as its new global, general entertainment brand. Many assumed that Hulu would have this role, partly because even Disney said Hulu would eventually roll out internationally, sometime in the 2021 calendar year. And when they clarify “calendar year” that means Q4, since their financial year starts in the fourth quarter of the calendar year. (I had thoughts for how they should optimize their next round of streaming launches here.) 

This news is a bit surprising. With the onset of Covid-19, Disney said they were delaying Hulu’s international rollout. Presumably that meant all global streaming ambitions.

Apparently not!

In other words, Hulu is out and Star is in. It wasn’t about saving money, it was about changing strategies.

Star has some advantages over Hulu. First, Hulu is still partially owned by Comcast for a few more years, and that means they have some input into how it operates/makes/loses money. Second, Hulu doesn’t have an international footprint, so it doesn’t have any advantage over Star in branding. Third, since Hulu isn’t global, it doesn’t have international rights for most of its content, which means again it has no advantage in launching globally.

Whether it’s Star or Hulu, clearly Disney wants to be not just a US or Indian only streamer, but a global streamer like Netflix or Prime Video. And the reason is to take advantage of what Netflix (and its boosters) call “global scale”. The idea that if you make content and sell it globally, you can amortize it over a broader swath of customers, hence increasing return on investment. For this strategy to work, it means content in one area has to travel well globally. 

The complication is that not all content travels well. In fact, I’d estimate 90-99% of content does NOT travel well. Yes, this clashes with the rhetoric coming from Netflix and Netflix analysts that tout the streamer’s global scale. This frankly just isn’t supported by the economics or the data. (Do I have a half-written article on this that I haven’t published yet? Yes, I’ve been working on it for two years.) 

The content that does tend to do well globally is relatively narrow, with some outside exception: 

– Big feature film blockbusters produced in Hollywood
– Animation (Because the voices can be easily dubbed.)
– Some procedurals produced globally (Think police dramas.)
– Some soap operas produced globally. (Think telenovelas or K-Dramas.)
– Some broad comedies (The key is not niche or culturally specific humor.)

This is my big worry for Disney’s global plans. Both for Hulu when it got delayed and now for Star. Essentially, they’re building a global service off primarily American originals and American productions. Don’t take my word for it, here’s Bob Chapek:

Star Content

The worry is that FX prestige dramas don’t play in Indonesia. Same for Searchlight indie darlings. And the same for broad-based comedies produced by Disney-ABC Television. As an American, I’m in for these types of shows. But I understand, and have seen, that different cultures want content produced by that culture.

Does Disney have broad, tentpoles for a service like this? Yep. If you want global content, nothing better than this:

disney-plus-layout copy

And toss in the wildly popular globally Simpsons. But that content is already on Disney+. So what does Star offer to customers if Disney+ is really the globally appealing service? Sure, it can bundle Disney+, but then why would customers who aren’t in India want/need Star?

My Recommendation: Take The Middle Ground: A “Regional” Streamer

If I were advising Disney, I would ignore the not-actually-working-in-practice theory of “global scale.” It’s a mirage. Instead, I’d focus on content that travels “regionally”. My suspicion is Disney knows this and that’s what Star’s actual mission is.

See, between content that doesn’t travel at all and content that is globally popular is a third type of content: “regional” content. This content travels within certain language groups or cultural areas. 

For example, Bollywood dramas play well globally. They just don’t travel to markets like America or Europe. But they perform across South Asia, the Middle East and larger Asia. If this type of content was paired with TV content from America that does travel well, you could begin to see a service that targets those regions fairly well. Then you could top it off with Fox/Disney blockbusters that don’t fit on Disney+.

Of course, then Disney would need European-focused content for Star in Europe and Spanish content for S Star in Latin-American focused service and so on. In other words, no global scale.

Long term, this strategy would get about as many subscribers as Netflix has globally, but would be more sustainable from a cost perspective. (While having less upside from the perceived advantages of global scale” for the stock price..) Instead of repeatedly overpaying (sometimes by 100%) for global rights, Disney could slightly overpay for regional rights, focusing on the territories most likely to actually watch a given show. (Again, I’ll prove this argument in a future article.)

Let’s bring this back to Hotstar/Star. I’m by no means an expert on their content, but from what I can tell, they don’t have a lot of original programming to act as the driver of even regional content growth. Here’s from the Wikipedia page.

IMAGE wiki

On the flip side, its parent company Star does have original production studios. Presumably with some content they can leverage globally. Again, I’m not an expert in Indian TV production, but Chapek mention it in their plans.

Final call? For the big news of the week, if the question is “good strategy or bad strategy?” for the moment I have to say, “It depends.” Disney is clearly launching something globally and Star seems to be an easier brand to do that with than Hulu. But it’s far from a sure bet.

Data of the Week – Peacock has 10 Million US Sign-Ups; Disney+ Has 60 Million Global Subscribers

Peacock’s 10 Million “Sign-Ups” 

Is this a good number? Like last week, I don’t know. More than any other streamer, Peacock is a work in progress. It’s biggest tent pole–the Olympics–was delayed a year. Hopefully Comcast will keep releasing these sign-up numbers every quarter.

Likely NBC-Universal saw a big jump in sign-ups at both launch (Comcast/Cox in April, national in July) based on the advertising campaigns. My guess is new sign-ups will slow until the Olympics and look like a shape I’m calling “the substack curve”. The question is when they can get their next big leap in subscribers. Unfortunately, that’s probably not until next year, at the earliest. 

Disney+ Subscribers: Did Hamilton Help?

Disney announced a Covid-19-driven boost in subscribers. Here’s how Disney’s subscribers have grown over time:

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 1.38.49 PM

Thankfully Disney wants to keep winning headlines, so after each earnings report they provide updated Disney subscriber numbers. This enables us to see a nearly monthly growth in subscribers for the streamer.

Someone pointed out that for all the buzz of Hamilton–here’s one analysis saying more folks have streamed it than seen it in person–it didn’t actually move the needle in subscribers. (For instance, I said it “won” July over at Decider based on this assumption.) From June 27th–when the earnings report came out–to Tuesday’s earnings call, Disney “only” added 3 million subscribers. Some points on this interesting theory:

– My guess is 3 million is still quite a lot to add in one month. As their subscriber chart shows, the only other time they’ve beat this number of additional subscribers is when they launch in new territories.

– As Hamilton was one of only a handful of shows to launch in July, it’s a lot easier to triangulate how many new subscribers it acquired than it is for any given Netflix show. (We also don’t have official monthly subscriber numbers for Netflix.)

– Some of the subscribers likely did “churn in and churn out” of Disney+. Meaning they signed up for a month, watched all they wanted and cancelled. That’s the new reality for streamers, and I include Netflix in that. 

– We don’t know the “null hypothesis” meaning we don’t know how many subscribers Disney+ would have had if they didn’t move Hamilton. Essentially, this isn’t an “experiment” because the control group can’t exist. If Disney hadn’t released Hamilton, maybe Disney+ would still have ended up with 60.5 million subscribers or maybe they’d have stayed at 57.5 or somewhere in between. We don’t know.

– The blockbuster strategy is still the key for Disney. Those blockbusters need to be successful TV series based on their IP. I’m looking at you Falcon and Winter Soldier.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

AMC Networks Announces Earnings

The headline is that ad sales are down, which isn’t surprising. The sub-headline is that due to Covid-19–asterisk extraordinaire–AMC is ahead of its goals for its multiple niche streaming services. 

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 3.51.04 PM

For a good take on the state of AMC, I recommend this recent episode of TV Top Five about the departure of Sarah Barnett.

CBS All-Access Expansion is Coming! And globally.

News continues to slowly leak out about SuperCBS’s plans to revamp CBS All-Access into a broader, Viacom-centric service. Notably, lots of episodes of Viacom programming are now available in CBS All-Access, though in many cases not current seasons due to ongoing licensing output deals. (Read the details in this long interview by Scott Porch at Decider.) Meanwhile, it’s collection of various niche streaming services does not seem to be going anywhere either. 

Then late yesterday, CBS announced its new plans for a yet to be branded Viacom-CBS global service. It’s a combination of Showtime, CBS and Viacom content, sort of like what you’d expect CBS All-Access to become.

Overall, the Super CBS strategy continues to not be well-defined, to not focused vision and to not build a competitive advantage. (That’s bad.)

Pluto TV and Verizon Deal to Offer PlutoTV

According to Deadline, the partners in this deal consider it ‘game changing”. And I can see their point: Pluto TV will be preinstalled on plenty of new phones and TV devices. (Notably not Apple devices.) That said, Pluto TV is and has always been “free”–it’s the F in FAST–so it’s not like as much money is changing hands as the Disney+/Verizon deal.

Lots of News with No News – Tik Tok Sale & Instagram Reels

My favorite hobby is pointing out that America’s tech giants are fairly poor at innovation. Indeed, most of the news businesses launched by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon are shockingly similar to smaller companies’ business models. The latest is Facebook taking aim at Tik Tok by launching “Instagram Reels” a thinly veiled video copy of Tik Tok. 

Meanwhile, Microsoft is negotiating to buy Tik Tok for somewhere between $30 billion to a trillion dollars. (Last number is fictional.) Judging by my newsletter feed, some folks consider this clearly the biggest business story in America. I’m not there yet, but will monitor if a sale happens.

The Flywheel Is a Lie! Distinguishing Between Ecosystems, Business Models, & Network Effects and How They All Impact the Streaming Wars

(Welcome to my series on an “Intelligence Preparation of the “Streaming Wars” Battlefield”. Combining my experience as a former Army intelligence officer and streaming video strategy planner, I’m applying a military planning framework to the “streaming wars” to explain where entertainment is right now, and where I think it is going. Read the rest of the series through these links:

An Introduction
Part I – Define the Battlefield
Defining the Area of Operations, Interest and Influence in the Streaming Wars
Unrolling the Map – The Video Value Web…Explained
Aggreggedon: The Key Terrain of the Streaming Wars is Bundling

This is probably the most popular image for business school students about Amazon. Heck, anyone describing Amazon has probably used this image. 

Amazon FlywheelIf we’re supposed to be neutral observers of businesses, you can’t help but notice after a moment of reflection how insanely positive this take is. Man, Jeff Bezos can really sell his positive vision and have it repeated universally.

If you were really cynical—hey, I am—what would the pessimistic version of this flywheel look like? The “Flywheel of Evil” if you will…

Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 9.21.08 AM

What changed? Well, first, the idea that you “sell more things” is great, but if you lose money on every transaction, that’s “sub-optimal” in business speak. Or bad in human speak. And Amazon does in many cases. 

To fund these losses, you need to start a really successful company that is totally unrelated to your retail business or its membership program, which is where Amazon Web Services comes in. There’s an alternate history where an Amazon without AWS (cloud computing) doesn’t take over retail because it doesn’t have a cash flow engine driving its growth. (In that timeline, Ebay becomes our overlords.)

Even more potent, though, is combining already low prices with Amazon’s decades long refusal to pay local taxes. Could you point to the continued imprisonment of poor Americans to online companies not paying local taxes? Maybe! (As local tax bases erode, some communities turned to police forces to extract rents, like in Ferguson, Missouri. Seem relevant to our current times?) Amazon does pay some local taxes—now—but only after it became an advantage to them in furthering their monopoly power.

Now that it has this “flywheel” rolling, Amazon uses its size to both crush new entrants who want to compete and to punish suppliers, capturing all the value from their product creations.

Which flywheel is “right”, then? Well, both actually. Both describe valuable methods for how Amazon grew to the size it did. Some of those methods were good for customers; some were bad for society. You can’t tell their story without both.

Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 9.21.39 AMWhat’s the lesson? Flywheels are simple whereas reality is complicated. As tools, flywheels are fairly inexact. They’re not even really tools, but narrative devices we use to help make sense of a complicated world. In other words, a “heuristic”. As behavioral economists like Kahneman and Tversky taught us, heuristics are useful, but can carry pitfalls if we aren’t careful.

What’s the point for the streaming wars? Well video has become a spoke on multiple company’s supposed “flywheels”. Everyone from Disney to Amazon, but most critically Apple last fall. Whether or not these were actual flywheels was less important than merely invoking the term and using it to justify nearly any amount of spending. 

Let’s call this another key piece of “terrain” in the streaming wars. The “Forest of Flywheels” if you will. The problem is the business and entertainment press has been fairly sloppy with our language when it comes these types of endeavors. Due to this sloppiness, we’ve allowed a lot of companies to launch video because they’ll “lose money on video to make money on X”. 

Today, I’ll explain the key terms. In my next article I’ll critique deficit-financing in particular. And then I’ll finish it off with an analysis of some of these business models to show their potential strengths and weaknesses. 

Summary

– Flywheels are the most overused term in business, and it’s important to know what different terms mean.
– Ecosystem is probably the most commonly confused term with flywheel. Ecosystems are also rare.
– A true flywheel is a self-perpetuating cycle of growth that is incredibly rare in practice.
– As such, in pursuit of flywheels, we’ve seen many digital players launch money-losing video efforts. I call these “deficit-financed business units”. And they’re one of the biggest factors in the streaming wars.

Defining Traditional Business Strategy Terms

You’ve read articles bemoaning jargon in the workplace. (This New York Magazine piece is the latest in hundreds on the subject.) Even I just denigrated “sub-optimal” above, a term I really don’t like. Still, I don’t take that extreme of a position on business nomenclature. Often, jargon really does have a role in explaining new concepts.

The problem comes in overuse. That’s what is currently happening with “flywheel”. It’s almost become synonymous with “successful business”. But it’s much more specific than that.

So let’s define our terms, so we can better understand what is and is not a flywheel.

Business Model 

It turns out if you want to stymie business school students, just ask them “what is a business model?” Indeed, they’re taking classes called “Strategy and Business Models”, but answering, “What is a business model?” can stump them. I’ve seen it.

At its most basic, a business model is a plan or process to make a good or service and sell it for more than it costs to make. Make a widget for $1, market it for $1 and sell it for $3. Or replace widget with service. The model is how you make money. On a financial statement, this is usually called the income statement. When I build a “model” for this website, that’s usually what I’m building. 

How do business models relate to flywheels? Well, you can have a successful business model that isn’t a flywheel! It’s just a good business. In the olden days, you would have probably described the dividend producing stocks as just good businesses. They don’t have huge growth prospects, but they still generate a return on investment. Cable companies in the 2000s fit this bill. They had good business models, but were absolutely not flywheels.

Where it gets complicated is usually a given company is actually a collection of many business models. Arguably for every product they sell. Or you have distinct models for different business units in the same conglomerate. Which is actually a good transition to our next definition.

Business Unit

Most companies on the S&P 500 aren’t just one business, but multiple types of businesses lumped together. This is the reality for most conglomerated businesses. When analyzing a compnay, it’s key to differentiate between its overall success and the success of its various pieces.

Amazon is a perfect example here. Retail is one business unit. But then it also has media businesses from live streaming to streaming to music. Then it also sells devices like Amazon Echo. Oh, and it has Whole Foods groceries too.

And then there is the cloud computing (AWS). Which I called out above. And it’s worth noting just how distinct that wildly financially successful enterprise is from the rest of Amazon’s consumer-focused retail efforts. It’s a business-to-business service that is powered by lots of fixed capital expenditure data warehouses. It barely relates. Yet, it’s part of Amazon.

How do business units relate to flywheels? Well, flywheels often fail to take into account entire business units. Take the Amazon flywheel of success…it totally ignores AWS! For years Amazon survived because it had an incredibly high margin business in cloud computing that could provide necessary capital that enabled Amazon to continue building its retail business. This also kept Wall Street happy.

That makes the Bezos flywheel not just wrong, but almost negligently wrong. 

It’s business malpractice to point out that a flywheel helped Amazon to succeed if you don’t include AWS’s role in propping up the balance sheet!

I would add, many of the “flywheel” charts you see out there are often just describing a company with multiple business units. (I’ve seen this with Disney and Epic Games.) Every business can benefit from owning multiple business units, from lowering costs or providing learnings. That used to be called “synergy”. Now we call them “flywheels”.

Ecosystem

Read More

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”.

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