Game of Thrones may be one of the most acclaimed shows on television at the moment yet it still only averages around 3 million viewers per episode in the US, a tiny fraction of the total viewing public.
So how does a critically-acclaimed show that is watched by so few people actually make money for HBO?
Slate.com has answered this question by looking beyond mainstream ratings success and looking more at the way cable networks such as HBO build audiences through beloved shows like Game of Thrones.
Instead of basing success solely on the ratings figures from the premiere of a certain episode, premium networks pay attention to the weekly figures that show both the episode in its prime timeslot and subsequent replays in the days that follow.
So therefore an audience of 3 million for an episode of Game of Thrones can grow to around 9 million across a week. Add to that the millions more who will watch the show on HBO subscriptions outside of the US.
“Buzz” also plays a large part in the success of shows like Game of Thrones, as the more hype a show has the more viewers want to subscribe to pay TV and cable networks like HBO in order to see it.
The Wire is a great example of a show that was viewed by very few people on TV but that was hyped up enough through critical acclaim and praise to warrant five seasons on HBO.
Positive attention is one of the keys to success for the likes of HBO, who produce only a small amount of original television each week.
HBO also owns most of its shows, whereas other cable networks license theirs. This means HBO can make money through selling the likes of Game of Thrones internationally, which covers a large chunk of the production costs.
Controlling the distribution and syndication of DVDs is another way HBO can make money from its shows, timing their releases to maximise sales and subscriptions. For example, the first season of Boardwalk Empire wasn’t released on DVD until the second season had concluded, meaning the only way to catch up was to be a HBO subscriber.
As a rule, HBO aims to bank half the subscription fee from all new subscribers while the rest goes to cable and satellite providers such as Time Warner Cable, who put in the marketing work to draw new subscribers.
Other cable networks such as Showcase tend to strike deals in which distributors pay a flat licensing fee and then keep customer subs for themselves.