Whether or not you watch Game of Thrones, you probably already know that the seventh season of the action-packed fantasy returned last month (to record-breaking ratings, no less). Maybe your friends held a viewing party, or posted about it on social media, or slipped “Winter is coming” somewhere into a recent conversation. Even if you’re behind on the show (three seasons behind, in my case), it’s unlikely that you’ll have to wait long before the events of the current season come to your attention (curse you, spoilers!).
In an age where countless varieties of television shows are available for your entertainment in a growing array of mediums – like Netflix, DVR, and various online streaming platforms – it’s rare to find one single show that captures such massive appeal and has an audience dedicated enough to tune in every week. Game of Thrones manages both, drawing in 16.1 million total viewers for the seventh season premiere, which includes 10.1 million who watched on the linear channel as the show aired (Variety). While not the only example of “consensus” or “appointment-viewing” television left, it is currently the strongest, growing in its last few seasons while other examples Scandal and The Walking Dead have seen viewership drop off (TIME).
Why, then, has Thrones been able to command not just viewers’ attention, but also their Sunday nights? Is it just the merit of the show itself, or is there a social aspect to it as well?
Game of Thrones is a prime example of communal TV - shows most enjoyed when we share them with others. Methods of sharing a TV viewing experience include physical watch parties or social media shares - Thrones fans use both.
In fact, so many people participate in Game of Thrones parties that The New York Times recently published an article asking “How Quiet Should You Be During ‘Game of Thrones’?”. Reactions from fans were mixed, preferring either total silence, some chatter during unimportant or dialogue-light scenes, and free talking throughout. Some fans need to fully immerse themselves in the show by watching it alone first, and others need to watch with others so that they can ask questions when they lose track of the plot. Fans from both sides cited “the shared experience” as part of their rationale, so which is it? Does the shared experience refer to quietly watching a show as a group, or does it mean talking as a group while watching a television show?
If you prefer to watch alone, you can still participate in the communal viewing experience through social media. Here, fans can share their opinions, reactions, and thoughts on the show without having others physically present. In an attempt to increase ratings, many shows have started to encourage (spoiler-free) live-blogging and live-tweeting by having cast and crew members participate. With Game of Thrones, it feels inevitable that as soon as an episode airs, the internet will become a minefield of spoilers for anyone who dares to watch the show later.
And that, in part, explains why Game of Thrones is one of the last appointment-viewing shows on television. Because of the communal experience, fans are all but required to view the show each Sunday night when it airs, either because they have agreed to watch with someone else or because they want to avoid having the episode spoiled ahead of time. While spoilers are difficult to avoid for most television shows, it’s particularly risky with Game of Thrones, where dramatic plot twists and power plays are infinitely more enjoyable to fans who didn’t see them coming.
Spoilers on Game of Thrones are so hard to avoid that Stephen Colbert introduced the “Spoiler-Proof Bucket” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. All you have to do is wear it on your head and you’ll be spoiler-free! (Image from www.cbs.com)
Overall, Game of Thrones is a fun show to watch with others – either electronically or in person – for a variety of reasons. With a large cast of characters to root for (or against), the frequent plot twists and shifting power dynamics compel viewers to tune in week-to-week. As someone planning to catch up to the show this month (to join a viewing party, of course), all I can say is: winter is coming, and it’s bringing communal television back with it.
Do you watch Game of Thrones? If so, how do you watch it? Alone, with a group? Do you post your thoughts on social media?
How do you think the communal viewing experience differs from the individual viewing experiences? Does it increase your enjoyment of the show, or decrease it?