We May Finally See the Disadvantage of "Game of Thrones"

Game of Thrones is over. HBO's (owned by AT&T (NYSE: T)) monster hit was arguably the biggest TV show of the golden age of television: it drew in millions upon millions of viewers and wrapped up with a finale that smashed HBO's previous records for live viewing and total views. Now Game of Thrones will enter its afterlife. Like the rest of HBO's back catalog, the show is now something that fans can watch on demand.

In some ways that has to be reassuring to AT&T as it navigates its tricky post-Thrones streaming future. When The Sopranos -- the HBO hit most comparable to Game of Thrones -- went off the air, it lived on only in syndicated reruns (A&E bought the rights and aired old episodes for a time). A monster show gave way to dead air when The Sopranos quite literally cut to black at the end of its controversial finale. HBO's brass can rest assured that the live airing of Game of Thrones' finale is not the end -- indeed, the day after the finale, HBO announced a live audience of 13.6 million and a total viewership of 19.3 million people, meaning that even by morning there were more than 5 million people who had watched the finale after it aired.

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But exactly how big of a hit will Game of Thrones be as an on-demand rerun? It's hard to say for sure, because no show this big has ever ended its run in the streaming era. But there is one thing about Game of Thrones that could potentially work against it.

What kinds of shows do people stream most?

Game of Thrones was one of the biggest hits of the streaming era. It was also a monster live TV hit, with plenty of viewers tuning in through their cable or satellite providers and watching live. Game of Thrones became a cultural touchstone in part because its weekly release schedule made it a communal experience -- one that, in today's spoiler-crazed media culture, seemed almost mandatory to those who didn't want the plot to be "ruined" by what they overheard at the office water cooler Monday morning.

But Game of Thrones isn't that kind of streaming show anymore -- not now that it's a finished product available on demand. It's part of HBO's streaming back catalog, not its (arguably more important) current live lineup.

Over at Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX), all of the programming is presented in full, finished seasons (if not always full, finished shows). Looking at what people watch on Netflix may tell us something about Game of Thrones' after-the-fact appeal.

So what do people watch most on Netflix? Netflix won't say for sure, but here's what independent analysts at Jumpshot found when they studied viewership trends last year.

Rank Title Portion of all Netflix Views
1 The Office (US) 7.19%
2 Friends 4.13%
3 Parks & Recreation 2.34%
4 Grey's Anatomy 2.11%
5 New Girl 1.65%
6 Supernatural 1.18%
7 (tie) That '70s Show 1.17%
7 (tie) Criminal Minds 1.17%
9 NCIS 1.09%
10 (tie) Arrested Development 0.84%
10 (tie) Shameless 0.84%

The show that users turn to again and again on Netflix is The Office -- it accounts for more streaming than most of the rest of the top 10 combined. Friends is a heavy hitter, too. Other sitcoms pepper the list, and virtually all the shows in the top 10, sitcom and non-sitcom alike, have something in common: they are very easy to jump into for a single episode. While there are certainly multiepisode arcs in The Office and some other shows on Jumpshot's list, these shows generally offer self-contained arcs within each episode. That makes them easy to jump into and makes favorite episodes easy to rewatch in isolation.

To be clear, we can't know for sure that this factor is what causes The Office and the rest to do so well with Netflix viewers. We do know, however, that Netflix's own "top viewed" metrics (as announced in the UK as part of a test program) calculate shows' popularity in a way that reduces the impact of heavy repeat watching -- and if we assume that shows like The Office are getting more repeat views and binge-watchers than serial stories like Netflix original Stranger Things, then it would make sense for Netflix to prefer its otherwise inexplicable metric.

Game of Thrones is anything but episodic. Its plots are virtually all multiepisode arcs, and some plot threads run throughout the entire series. The good news is that Game of Thrones looks like a show that super fans can binge watch over again from the beginning; the bad news is that it certainly does not look like a show that will entice viewers to jump in for a random episode here and there. And if Netflix's viewers are any guide, it's the latter sort of show that generates big streaming numbers.

Will "Game of Thrones" suffer in on-demand viewing?

There are a couple of caveats to consider. First, Game of Thrones has one very important thing in common with Friends that it does not have with, for instance, House of Cards: it is one of the most popular shows of all time. That The Office dominates Netflix does not necessarily spell doom for all serials or all nonsitcoms. Another thing to remember is that disappointment will be relative for Game of Thrones: for a massive hit, disappointing on-demand numbers may not be all that low in real terms.

Ultimately, here's what we know: Game of Thrones looks a lot more like a show designed to be viewed once and in order than Friends does, and Friends is exactly the sort of show that seems to generate great streaming numbers. Game of Thrones thrived in spoiler culture, drawing everyone in to see what happened in each storyline next. With the ending done and the spoiler warnings gone, and with little reason to sample episodes in the middle, it's easy to imagine Game of Thrones having a less-than-impressive run on the on-demand scene.

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Stephen Lovely owns shares of AT&T and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Netflix. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.