Game Of Thrones was not just the world’s biggest television show, setting records for budget, effects and viewer numbers — it changed the medium.
When the epic fantasy series first aired in 2011, television was still the poor relation of cinema and free-to-air was still the dominant sector in this medium.
Ten years on from that first episode on April 17, 2011, television is at least the equal of movies and the budgets for television shows attempting to become the “new GoT” are in the billions.
“I think it did change television. It was really about a whole range of factors coming together at one time and becoming the perfect vehicle for a global phenomenon,” says Professor Anthony Lambert, senior research associate for media and cultural studies at Macquarie University.
Television was already changing at the end of the “noughties”, with more talent switching to the medium, streaming developing and better equipment enabling TV to compete with cinemas.
“It showed us what this new environment could be,” Lambert says.
“It set up a template for contemporary TV and short form TV series such as Big Little Lies — and whatever else Nicole Kidman seems to be doing at the moment.
“It made a few careers — even for tall women (Gwendoline Christie) and short men (Peter Dinklage) and it really defined that moment when we were just getting into the idea of watching TV on our phones.
“They were lucky in as much they were ingenious but they rode a wave of change.
“It really is quite spectacular to look at — and now people don’t want that kind of static TV you got back in the day.”
As well as cutting through age, race and cultural differences, Game Of Thrones also hastened the death of the “really long TV seasons”.
At the turn of the century a hit show such as Ally McBeal had 25 episodes or so a season and studios expected it to keep cranking those out, year after year — until the storylines simply ran out of ideas and the show collapsed in the ratings.
“Now TV comes in short bursts of high quality,” Professor Lambert says.
Of course it was an unlikely candidate for a global phenomenon.
“On paper, if someone had suggested would people be interested in a show with magic and dragons, it would have appeared to have a fairly limited audience,” Dr Lambert says.
“The opposite side of that is these kind of themes can be universal — they speak to a universal understanding where people thrive on tales of melancholy and melodrama.
“Game Of Thrones also makes comments about our sense of morality and the shifting nature of relationships.”
Dr Lambert says he remembers when his students were “rabbiting on” about this new show.
“They couldn’t get enough of it — and couldn’t believe I wasn’t champing at the bit to watch the next episode,” he says.
It swiftly won him over with its story and “simply impressive visuals” but he was also fascinated with how GoT also really tapped into other media, using websites and podcasts and fanzines to amplify its reach.
Ultimately, thanks to GoT, television is “no longer the poor cousin” of the entertainment world.
Marty Murphy is a senior lecturer at the Australian Film, TV and Radio School, where Game Of Thrones is often used as a teaching device.
He says TV’s development can be traced back to the 1990s with shows such as The Wire that gave audiences “an appetite for complex narratives”.
Game Of Thrones kicked that into high gear, often offering “20-25 different story threads” through a season.
“It brought very high production values on a massive scale to complex narrative TV,” he says.
It also blew up the old model of TV shows, which relied on regular broadcasting schedules, and paved the way for streaming TV and bingeing sessions.
It also showed that TV could compete with cinemas for both fans, stars and money.
“One of the primary attractions of TV is immersion,” Dr Murphy says.
“Movies are dynamic and thrilling but require the completion of the narrative in around two hours.
“TV allows us to enjoy immersion and explore and ensemble of characters, as well as enjoy whatever genre effects it offers us in a long-ranging, long-form narrative.
“Where we get the thrill of a character transforming in a two-hour film, we get a different satisfaction from a biographical exposition in the TV show.
“For instance, Tony Soprano doesn’t change but over the seasons we learn more about him.”
The extra time allows the makers of these TV shows to really work on more complicated characters — often antiheroes, he says.
This led to complex characters such as Tyrion Lannister, his brother Jaime and their sister Cersei, earning fascination and indeed fan followings, even when some of their deeds were evil.
“An audience develops a different sort of allegiance with that character and starts to empathise with them about certain things,” Dr Murphy says. .
“It has allowed morally complex, sometimes repugnant, antihero characters to be explored — as literature has done.”
Dr Murphy says that events such as the Red Wedding and particularly the “death” of Jon Snow really increased the audience investment in the characters.
“It was a very clever hook for the audience,” he says.
The long wait between seasons to find out if Snow was alive also brought anticipation to a fever pitch.
“It’s the old adage of showbiz — make them wait,” he says.
“People really wanted it.”
By the seventh season, he says the show’s brand had grown so strong that the promotion for those episodes could just be the acronym “GoT”.
“What Game Of Thrones did was create a very strong fantasy story world and geopolitical warring nation states and folded in the brilliant idea of ‘Winter is Coming’,” he says.
“I was waiting for winter to come and it delivered and it was as bad (for the characters) as I hoped it would be.”
Dr Murphy says he teaches his students how the GoT story writers create a good story through strong characters and “generating lots of threads of conflict”.
And how “Winter is coming” is a brilliant device.
“It’s an elemental force that will affect every one of your characters and storylines.”
Ultimately, GoT’s success is due to it blending genres and multiple storylines with multiple characters, which bending many rules of TV.
Now, 10 years later: “Everyone is trying to fill the vacuum it has left behind.”
Celebrate the Iron Anniversary: Ten years of Game of Thrones, this month on Foxtel