You probably are already familiar with the popularity of US TV series Game of Thrones, but in case you did not know, the renowned fantasy epic was incredibly successful on a global scale. In fact, the show was broadcast in 207 different countries or territories, 194 of which being simulcast. It’s also stands as the most-licensed HBO program to date, with over 100 licensees worldwide. Love or hate the show, it was undeniably pandemic television; a phenomenon that broke through the limitation of cultural proximity and ignited TV screens all across the globe. Game of Thrones was the show on everyone’s lips, even during its controversial final season (though perhaps for different reasons than before). But how did the series manage to attain and maintain its mass appeal?
Well, there are your typical shallow responses to this question; “Sex! Violence! And Dragons!”, what more could you ask for? Though over time as Game of Thrones has gained popularity, it has also aggregated a loyal, engaged fan-base. Look no further than the lengthy discussions and in-depth analysis on fan forums like Reddit to see that its appeal can be more than simply “tits and dragons”. The subject of Game of Thrones’ popularity is often approached from a political or philosophical standpoint, pointing to dissatisfaction and unrest in contemporary society that qualifies the want for escapism in our entertainment media. Then of course, the show is frequently described as “Quality TV”; the writing, actors, and production level are ‘good’, and people like ‘good TV’. Not to mention that Game of Thrones was adapted from an already-popular book series by George R. R. Martin with many accolades of its own. In an essay about Game of Thrones and the ‘Quality TV’ meta-genre, Dan Hassler-Forest describes the show as a remediation of ‘cine-literary culture’, mixing cinema-like production aesthetics with narrative structures of 19th century literature novels.
Both of these reasons are indicative of Game of Thrones’ amassed cultural capital. When looking at the success of the series through the lens of media theory, the reason for its mass appeal can be explained in terms of cultural capital and proximity. Joseph Straubhaar defines cultural capital as “the sources of knowledge that permit people to make choices among media” in chapter 6 of the book ‘The Impact of International Television’. Being able to relate to the gritty depictions of human nature and politics from Game of Thrones is an experience that transcends linguistic and cultural differences, while the institutional framework of ‘Quality TV’ on American cable services appeals to a large portion of the global mainstream. Plus, the ‘fantasy’ genre lends itself to cultural ambiguity, meaning the audience does not require in-depth knowledge about any particular countries and their cultural practices to enjoy the story. Game of Thrones became popular on a global scale because it does not require cultural proximity to be engaged with and understood, among other reasons. Being a worldwide phenomenon, the show has countless avenues of cultural capital.
Straubhaar, Joseph, D. (2014). Choosing National TV: Cultural Capital, Language and Cultural Proximity in Brazil. The Impact of International Television: A Paradigm Shift. Edited by Michael G. Elasmar. Oxford: Routledge. pp. 77-110.