The impact of shows like Game of Thrones might be found at the water cooler.
I’m not ashamed to admit this (anymore), but I’m a geek. Ah, it feels so liberating to say it out loud (er, to type it)! Now, there are people out there who are geekier than me for sure, but I was geeky before it was “cool” (or at least mainstream). With the popularity of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Marvel movies, and so on, I feel like a lot of folks are finally appreciating what many of us geekier types have been enjoying for years.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the runaway popularity of HBO’s Game of Thrones. For those who aren’t fans or haven’t been following the hoopla, the final season (8) premieres April 14. If someone had told me when I was a teen that the biggest show on TV in the future would involve knights, magic, dungeons (& dragons!), I would have thought they were nuts. My fantasy has come true! There’s an important point I want to make in this blog, and you don’t have to be a fan of Game of Thrones to appreciate it. So please, read on!
How HBO Is Getting It “Right”
If you have both Netflix and HBO, you might see that they have a different way of streaming new seasons for their respective series. HBO releases one episode per week for a new season, which is the same manner network television has used for decades. In contrast, Netflix gets a whole season together and drops all the episodes for a new season on a single day. This encourages fans of a show, such as Stranger Things, to binge watch episodes. Let’s set aside problems that might be associated with binge-watching (e.g., health problems from being too sedentary) for the moment. Where HBO, with shows like Game of Thrones, gets it “right” over Netflix, is that they create shared experiences through delivering one episode at a time.
The Power of Water Cooler Conversations
My conversations with fellow Netflix show fans, like Stranger Things, often go something like this:
- Me: “Season 2 of Stranger Things came out yesterday! Have you started watching it?”
- Co-Worker: “Yes! Jeff and I love it! We are on episode 5! We binge-watched 4 episodes last night!”
- Me: “Oh! Don’t say anything! My wife and I are only on episode 2.”
- Co-Worker: “Don’t worry. I won’t give away any spoilers. But I think ya’ll will love this season. Maybe not as much as season 1, but it’s still awesome!”
- Me: “Ah. Okay. I’ll let you know when we are done so we can chat about it.”
- Co-Worker: “Okay.”
In contrast, my Game of Thrones conversations go more like this:
- Me: “What did you think of the season premiere of Game of Thrones?”
- Co-Worker: “OMG! Unbelievable! That battle was off the hook! What do you think is going on with Jaime and Cersei? Do you think Sir Jorah is going to get back to Daenerys?”
- Me: “Every prediction that I’ve ever made has been wrong, but I’ll tell you my theories and then I want to hear yours! With Jaime and Cersei, I think…”
Do you notice a difference? The “life” of Game of Thrones is freed from the screen. Yes, HBO, you are the “Breaker of Chains” with Game of Thrones. The magic of the show, I would argue, is in how it unites viewers in real life. It encourages and facilitates human connection. We can have conversations with one another, make predictions, and gush about episode twists, turns, and “reveals.” The shared anticipation that fans have experienced as we awaited every new season and episode is part of what makes the show such a hit and so much fun.
Not only can we have a shared experience with viewers as it unfolds, but people have “watch parties” to enjoy the show as a group. Viewing Game of Thrones becomes an event. Moreover, we talk to friends and even strangers about the show. At workplaces across the globe, co-workers enhance their relationships through “water cooler conversations” after each episode.
I proudly admit that I have several Game of Thrones t-shirts, coffee mugs, etc. One reason that I have these (besides that they just give me the warm fuzzies) is that they create instant touch points of conversation with random people. We bond instantly over the show. In a way, we possess a shared cultural heritage. This is very similar to buildup and frenzy that took place as J.K. Rowling released each new book in her Harry Potter series.
Although it seems paradoxical, I would argue that the power and popularity of Game of Thrones rests on its ability to create shared experiences that unite people both online (e.g., social media, discussion forums, podcasts) and, more importantly, in real life. See, this is undeniable proof that screens CAN make us happier! Thank you, HBO, for understanding the magic of “water cooler conversations.” Netflix, please stop killing them.
Will Winter Ever Come (Again)?
With so many options to stream movies and shows, including Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Sling TV, YouTube TV, the television landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented. There are shows offered to suit every taste with new content being created at a feverish pace. Netflix alone spent around $12 billion on content in 2018, with 85 percent of that going to the production of 1000 originals. Moreover, many streaming services use the Netflix model of delivering an entire season’s worth of new content all at once. When you combine these realities with other competition for our attention including video games and social media, I fear that it will become increasingly difficult to preserve water cooler conversations. “Winter is coming” indeed, but it will come and go. Let’s hope that the viewing landscape doesn’t become so fragmented that the water cooler conversations go with it.
Screens have the potential to increase our well-being. It is my conviction that they are most likely to do this when they facilitate and enhance our in-person social connections. This is where the most powerful “magic” resides. In this regard, Game of Thrones deserves a collective “thank you” from viewers across the globe for providing the opportunity to share this unfolding experience that has brought so many of us closer together. The North, and the rest of us, shall remember!