Can “House of the Dragon” trigger a major media meltdown?

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Mergers are difficult. Most fail. David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc., seems determined to defy the odds. Since overseeing the company’s merger in April, he’s made a series of tough calls to bring new discipline to his content strategy, ranging from scrapping the newly launched CNN+ streaming service and movie $90 million “Batgirl” to layoffs and corporate reorganizations. The longer-term plan promises to be a handful of expensive ‘date TV’ galleons (produced by HBO) and a flotilla of cheaper reality ‘comfort viewing’ options (produced by Discovery+) . This weekend, the strategy faces its first big test: HBO’s well-funded “Game of Thrones” prequel, “House of the Dragon.”

With “Game of Thrones”, HBO caught lightning in a bottle. Who knew so many viewers would flock to a show based on an unfinished 1990s series of 1,000+ page fantasy novels inspired by the English Wars of the Roses? It might be hard to remember now, but people were once surprised that a show in which sibling incest played such a big part could find such a large audience. It ended with 164 Emmy Award nominations.

“Dragon” is HBO’s second attempt to see if the unlikely magic (and revenue) can be rekindled. Producers have invested $30 million in a pilot for a prequel series starring Oscar-nominated actress Naomi Watts. “It was very adult and sophisticated and smart, and there was a thematic conversation at the center of it about disenfranchisement in the face of colonialism and religious extremism,” HBO executive Francesca Orsi told The Daily Mail. Hollywood Reporter. It feels a bit more like HBO’s pre-Thrones comfort zone (like “The Wire” and “The Sopranos”), and a bit headier than the original series. “Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss dismissed the themes as “for eighth-grade book reports”. Executives dracarysed the Watts project last year.

Under Zaslav, HBO seems willing to make a simpler bet. There is no need to subvert expectations or blow anyone away. Just give people more of the same. And they’re probably not wrong; there are plenty of viewers who simply want more of the original series, or, as one cast member put it reductively, “t-ts and dragons.”

Regardless of the source of its appeal, “Thrones” earned an estimated $285 million per episode over eight seasons. That kind of money makes its final season budget of $15 million per episode budget pretty reasonable. “Thrones” is still one of the most streamed shows on television, three years after its stunning finale, and Zaslav says the original series’ viewership is actually growing with the new show’s marketing push.

Despite the cost savings he seeks in other parts of the business, Zaslav said “Thrones” and its spinoffs are one area they see as a worthwhile investment. “Dragon” was greenlighted without a pilot and would have cost $20 million per episode. George RR Martin, who wrote the books and works on the TV shows, compared the franchise to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which grossed around $38 billion, and a major producer compared it to ‘Star Wars’. , which had a much longer time to rack up over $69 billion. If those parallels are right, there’s still plenty of revenue to capture: “Thrones” has only grossed around $4.4 billion so far. For comparison, that puts it just below “Seinfeld” in the highest-grossing media properties of all time, or just over half of a “PAW Patrol,” which premiered two years later.” Thrones”.

That kind of money would be a huge win for Warner Bros. Discovery, although at that point they might as well change the name of the whole company to “HBO.” But can they do it?

While “Dragon” looks lavish in previews, there’s reason to think some viewers might find it difficult. Unlike the original series, the story (loosely based on the English Civil War period known as The Anarchy) does not lend itself to heroes; with no major changes to the source material, there’s no Stark family equivalent for fans to feel good about. This can give it a gritty historical realism that appeals to critics and core fans, but makes it less accessible to a wider audience. In Marvel and Star Wars films, there is usually a clear hero.

And unlike the worlds of Star Wars and Marvel, the world of Westeros is very adult. There’s gore and orgies, and yes, all that incest. That makes it harder to cash in on spinoffs and spinoffs — and also limits the appeal of having “Thrones” and now “Dragons” bumping elbows with sweeter Discovery Plus reality TV fare. Think “90 Day Fiancé” and “For the Love of Kitchens.” No spoilers here, but I don’t think we’ll see many little girls dressing up as Rhaenyra Targaryen in October.

Given how profitable family franchises are, it seems odd that during a recent earnings call, CFO Gunnar Wiedenfels indicated that the company has no plans to prioritize content aimed at children. (One of the direct-to-stream movies that Zaslav recently killed off was a Scooby-Doo feature.) This would seem to be an area where some of the hoped-for fusion synergies would materialize: Warner Bros. owns the Looney Tunes, DC Comics and Harry Potter franchises, and HBO has been exploring spin-off “Thrones” series that could work for younger audiences – notably, a series based on the simpler, more categorized “Dunk and Egg” novels Martin’s PG-13. Still, it makes sense that Zaslav would push Warner Bros. Discovery to be much more selective about which projects to embark on, and that it is going all out in Westeros. If it earns even half of what Marvel earned, it would easily become the highest grossing TV franchise of all time. Yes, that kind of success could drive HBO further and further away from its old core of intellectual city fare like “Treme” and “Succession,” and would seem to leave Discovery little more than the producer of new “Deadliest Catch” seasons. But these are undoubtedly problems that Zaslav would like to have. If you find yourself riding a dragon, the best thing to do is hang on.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is editor-in-chief of Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was Ideas and Commentary Editor at Barron’s and Managing Editor of Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”

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Valerie J. Wallis