[This post is a bit of an extension of previous post, TV; Game on.]
Since its creation, Game of Thrones has encountered both acclaim and criticism regarding its content. In her review in The New York Times, Ginia Bellafante criticises the show’s apparent overuse of more violent and sexual scenes, “tossed in as a little something for the ladies.” In his article in The Guardian, David Barnett contradicts various points made by Bellafante, and depicts the show in a more positive light. And finally, Miles McNutt gives insight into certain problems of early reviews of the show in his Cultural Learnings article.
Game of Thrones raises certain issues due to its content. Often bold, brutal and daring, it raises the bar for what is considered ‘quality television,’ but in doing so, provokes further debate on what exactly ‘quality television’ is, and why it is so.
Jonathan Bignell believes quality television relies on key factors often associated with quality cinema:
“Quality television drama means an aesthetically ambitious programme type with the literary values of creative imagination, authenticity and relevance. As a mode of production, it is where writing and mise-en-scene are prioritised.” (2007, p. 162)
In essence, quality television relies on a combination of quality writing and mise-en-scene as its starting point. From there, techniques of camera work, framing, and acting need to further impress the audience. According to Dorothy Collins Swanson, utilising quality writing assumes the audience is of a relatively high intelligence level, and furthermore, creates characters that “tend to endear themselves to us.” (2000, p. 47) Characters are multidimensional, complex and flawed; “characters on quality shows are us.” (2000, p. 47) It is no real surprise, then, that Game of Thrones is so often referred to as quality television. It’s many complex characters, and time spent developing them and their relationships, in addition to the intricate and highly engaging writing, accentuates its status as quality television.
It is perhaps expected, then, that with highly engaging writing, a show may tug a few of the wrong strings and raise some issues. To be bold is to be provocative, and that is exactly what the writing of Game of Thrones delivers. The show is particularly attacked over its depiction of the relationship between men and women; men, for the most part, as the all-action, all-violence, sword-swinging bread winners, and women as the submissive, subservient eye-candy. Ginia Bellafante (2011) is certainly on this opposing side when it comes to Game of Thrones, stating rather naively yet boldly that the supposed overuse of “play-boy style plot points” and “costume-drama sexual hopscotch,” is merely added in to appeal to a female audience: “‘Game of Thrones’ is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.” Here Bellafante may be missing the many underlying complex layers of the show’s writing; many females characters featured on the show directly challenge the male characters, and it is they the audience is encouraged to support and connect with. Additionally, though Game of Thrones may indeed appeal more to a male audience, but to suggest females are appealed to by the use of these aspects of the show is a rather large generalisation; Game of Thrones is much more complex than this, and naturally appeals to a female audience on many levels.
However one cannot dismiss the notion that part of why Game of Thrones is considered ‘quality television’ is perhaps due to its creator, HBO, and the brand it represents. HBO emerged as a serious contender in the quality television game when it started differentiating itself from the other networks. Keen to become something ‘more’ than ‘just television’, an iconic slogan was created (“It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”), marketing the network beyond the quality seen on others. As Deborah Jaramillo suggests, “this eagerness to differentiate its product from that of broadcast television amounts to the creation of a brand.” (2002, p. 64) The brand became the separation of HBO from the other networks, and hence allowed HBO to target more niche, specific audiences with shows more inclined to viewers interested in new, original content; “without the financial constraints under which the networks function, HBO can target narrowly segmented niche markets, a concept essential to its branding.” (Jaramillo 2002, p. 63)
Game of Thrones is perhaps an example of this niche audience targeting strategy. The show played a large role in what could be called the revival of the fantasy genre; combining this with elements of drama, action, and adventure, Game of Thrones accentuates a hybrid style of television, perhaps most appealing to a niche fantasy fan base. The show’s adaption from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire could be seen as further appealing and targeted at a specific niche fantasy-inclined audience, and hence align with HBO’s consistent strategy of airing shows aimed at specific audiences like these.
HBO obviously doesn’t stop at niche audiences, but rather uses them as a starting point. Referencing HBO’s campaign to market popular vampire series True Blood, Jonathan Hardy explains:
“HBO’s strategy involved a sophisticated effort to establish both cult status and popular appeal. Through the targeting of fan networks, buzz marketing and invitations for immersion, HBO’s corporate strategy sought to cultivate fan engagement and use this as a tool to generate interest and publicity amongst wider audiences.” (2011, pp. 12-13)
The marketing strategy for Game of Thrones, then, assumably would have had similar objectives, given both shows are first aimed at more niche audiences. Beyond this, HBO also extends its marketing strategy to commercial intertextuality, described as “the production and interlinking of texts like blockbuster films or TV series with allied paratexts and products, such as spin-offs, reversionings, promos, online media, books, games and merchandise,” by Hardy (2011, p. 7). By linking the original books with the television adaption, as with Game of Thrones and True Blood, HBO immediately creates a fan base that continue over from these books. In turn, HBO then develops further cross-media promotion, including online and social media engagement, and hence allows niche audiences to be reached and targeted with ease and efficiency, as well as drawing the attention of a wider audience through these strategies.
HBO’s approach to marketing is interesting it say the least. It purposefully begins by targeting niche audiences with its “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” slogan; “the implication is that TV is everything else,” (Jaramillo 2002, p. 65) and therefore, HBO is separated – niche, not part of the mainstream – and ideal of audiences who are after something a little different. This is further accentuated by HBO adapting certain television shows, such as Game of Thrones and True Blood, from popular book series’. Game of Thrones, however, holds it own weight when it comes to being quality television; a combination of sophisticated writing and aesthetically appealing mise-en-scene align the show with common definitions of what a quality television show need be.
Bellafante, G 2011, ‘Game of Thrones: A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms’, The New York Times, 14 April, viewed 5 December 2013, < http://tv.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/arts/television/game-of-thrones-begins-sunday-on-hbo-review.html?_r=2& >
Bignell, J 2007, ‘Seeing and Knowing: Reflexivity and Quality’, in Akass, K & McCabe, J, Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, United States of America & Canada, pp. 158-170
Hardy, J 2011, ‘Mapping Commercial Intertextuality: HBO’s True Blood’, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 7-17
Jaramillo, DL 2002, ‘ The Family Racket: AOL Time Warner, HBO, The Sopranos, and the Construction of a Quality Brand’, Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 26, no. 1, pp.59-75