Every Sunday night, millions of people across the world have been tuning in to watch the wildly popular television show Game of Thrones.
The Season 8 premiere on April 14 drew a record 17.4 million viewers, becoming HBO’s biggest night ever for streaming.
The fantasy show is in its final season, which is an incredibly emotional experience for die-hard Game of Thrones (GoT) fans. During weekly episodes, social media is dominated with GoT conversations as people live-tweet their reactions, post memes on Instagram and share theories on fan forums.
But what if you don’t watch the show? Are you missing out if you’re not able to talk spoilers at the office water cooler? Will you struggle to hold a conversation during a first date if you think the “Red Wedding” refers to a wedding where people wore red?
According to experts, not watching GoT is not really that big of a deal.
“It feels like everybody’s talking about Game of Thrones on social media, and this gives you a sense that everybody’s watching it,” said Deborah L. Jaramillo, an associate professor of film and television studies at Boston University.
“But that’s not necessarily the case.”
Does not watching Game of Thrones matter?
For writer Anne T. Donahue, GoT is not an appealing show.
“I’m just not a dragon person, or an armour and battle (person), and the whole genre is just not my bag,” Donahue told Global News.
“I watched the clip of the ‘Red Wedding’ when it happened because it was all over Twitter, and I was like ‘I hate this.'”
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Donahue is so not into GoT that she even addresses her disinterest in her book of essays, Nobody Cares.
“Millions … of people watch it every week so, clearly, it’s quite cool and part of this massive subculture; it’s just not for me,” she explained.
Cathy Perron, an associate professor of film and television at Boston University, says people who don’t watch GoT have often opted out deliberately.
“There is a reason why they’ve turned away from the series,” Perron explained, citing things like the show’s violence and graphic nature. “I think that they are comfortable with not being part of that cultural conversation and just decided it was not for them.”
Missing out on conversations
If you’re someone who can’t point out Jon Snow in a lineup, you may feel like an outsider. GoT fans can be an enthusiastic bunch and may talk about the show online, at work, during social outings and, well, any time they can.
But despite feeling like GoT conversations are everywhere, the show is not actually as popular as big shows of the past, says David Thorburn, an author and professor of literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“(Game of Thrones) is a much less significant phenomenon than many media outlets — especially newspapers — are making it out to be,” Thorburn said.
Thorburn says that a show like I Love Lucy — which was one of the most-watched shows in the U.S. — was so significant that you were on the fringe if you did not watch it. (For reference, in 1953, 44 million people watched the episode where Lucy had her son, Little Ricky.)
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Compared to I Love Lucy or MASH, where 106 million people tuned in for the show’s finale, GoT has a much less substantial reach.
“Although (GoT) has a large audience in … the cable and streaming era, it’s not really a large audience compared to the majority audiences that network television regularly got,” Thorburn said.
Of course, television and the way we consume media has greatly changed since the glory days of prime time, says Jaramillo, pointing out that we won’t likely have another “who shot J.R. moment,” referencing the 1980 episode of Dallas that garnered 83.6 million viewers, according to the L.A. Times.
While Jaramillo acknowledges that people may also watch GoT illegally, skewing the actual number of people who watch the show, she still thinks the attention around GoT is a bit over-hyped.
“I don’t quite understand why Game of Thrones has kind of captured everyone’s attention, actually — and I use the word ‘everyone’ kind of ironically because there are TV shows, for example, that are more popular than Game of Thrones,” she explained.
“Game of Thrones tends to do well in the 18 to 49 demographic … and a younger audience is very, very active on social media.”
There is a problem, however, if people are missing out on cultural conversations because they do not have access to TV or streaming services, Jaramillo said. She said that since GoT is streamed through HBO, it can be a barrier to those who cannot afford it.
“So much television now is behind a paywall, and television is a very, very important part of our culture,” Jaramillo said. “If people can’t access it then they’re… unable to experience cultural touchstones.”
The importance of the show
Even if dragons and drama are not for you, it’s important to acknowledge that the series has become an important moment in pop culture.
Perron says one of the reasons GoT is so successful is because it encompasses many areas of interest outside of fantasy. She says the show also tackles themes of power and politics.
“The other thing that’s really important is that it’s global in its reach,” Perron added, highlighting the fact that you can stream GoT on HBO across the world. “I think that that’s a different kind of social interaction than we usually have with television programs.”
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GoT‘s popularity has also encouraged others to watch, too, Perron said.
Thorburn says that GoT is also important from a cultural standpoint. He points out that as the show has grown in popularity over the years, more people have chosen to take part in conversations and experiences around it.
“The idea that there are shared cultural experiences that people watch together, discuss together, interpret together … and talk about at the water cooler — those kinds of events have an anthropological or cultural importance that often far exceeds the artistic value or the moral value of the experience being described,” he said.
Fine without GoT
Donahue, who often writes about pop culture, doesn’t feel like she’s missing out by skipping the show.
While she acknowledges the cultural significance of GoT, Donahue says she would much rather engage in shows she actually enjoys, like Mad Men or Veep.
Still, despite never watching an episode, Donahue says she appreciates the show’s fan culture.
“The way you see people react to Game of Thrones on Twitter, in particular, is so funny and so clever that I’ll read a recap or something just so I understand where (the reference) fits,” she said.
“(That way) you are part of it enough to understand and can laugh at a meme — and there are so many good Game of Thrones memes.”