Binge Watching Game of Thrones for the First Time
Why start watching Game of Thrones now? Or a better question, why haven't I watched the series until now? The answer lies in where the show airs, exclusively on HBO.
I didn't have HBO. The network may have been appealing to me back in the early 80s, before there was anything like a Blockbuster Video. When movies aired on television they were edited to remove adult content, and bisected by dozens of commercial breaks. Being able to watch unedited and uninterrupted movies on television was an exciting novelty. But eventually you could rent movies, both on video tape and on pay per view. So when cable finally came to my home town, I had no reason to pay the extra $8 a month to add HBO to the $100 I was already paying for basic cable.
There were a few weekends where HBO was free as part of a promotion. During those two days there were a couple of major Hollywood films, a handful of box office bombs, and everything else were weird obscure movies even the cheap local UHF station wouldn't be bothered airing. So no, the documentary on the guy who invented the coffee shop, the poorly dubbed Czechoslovakian adaption of sleeping beauty, and at least five different low budget thrillers where the plot was dad screwing the babysitter who then goes crazy and tries to kill mom, just didn't appeal to me.
So, no HBO meant no HBO original series, including Game of Thrones. Not that I wasn't interested in seeing any of the HBO series that got critical praise. But by then HBO was $15 and I wasn't going to spend that much for one show.
Mind you, once word got out how great of a show Game of Thrones was, I did vow to watch it at some later date in the future. Some day when the series came to a proper conclusion, and was released as a box set on Blu-ray, which I would probably end up borrowing from a friend rather than purchasing or renting for myself. But Game of Thrones was something I knew I would some day be watching. And as such made every effort to avoid spoilers.
A couple of weeks ago the final season began with far more fanfare than the recent birth of the newest English prince. I couldn't help but feel left out and a bit jealous of those who forked over the extra cash for an HBO subscription for the past decade just to watch this one series. If only I didn't have to budget my money. If only I was like one of my successful friends who landed some sort of upper income job and could afford to toss money away on HBO for a single series. Or like my other friends who should be budgeting their money, but have a YOLO attitude on purchasing things which leaves them with an empty nest egg, but with HBO in their homes. And then I thought of something. "I wonder if I have HBO?". So I checked, and sure enough I had HBO. Then I checked to see if any past seasons of Game of Thrones was on HBO in Demand, and found out the entire series was there.
I have HBO? How!?
So, WTF you may be wondering. How did I get HBO, and why wasn't I aware I had it? About a year ago I was paying my cable bill. Neither machine that took cash was working, so I had little choice but to wait on line for a cashier. We got to talking about how my bill somehow skyrocketed to $195 even though when Charter Communications was looking for FCC approval to buy Time Warner Cable, they said that if the merger was allowed our cable bills would go down. That's when the cashier handed me a card showing Spectrum's billing menu. And according to the card, I had STARZ.
And here is how you may have HBO or some other premium service and not even know about it. The original cable subscription arrangement under Time Warner was tiers. Tier #1 was just the local channels you could get over the airwaves along with public access. Tier #2, which cost about $20 extra was basic cable up to channel 80. Tier #3 was channels 81 through 99 and cost you another $20. Tier #4 and up was the digital channels, and cost another $40. HBO, Showtime, STARZ, and many other movie based channels were premium, which meant they were not part of any tier and you had to pay separately to subscribe to them.
Under Spectrum, the tier system was eliminated. Channels were randomly grouped into packages, which also includes one premium channel. So, if you want to continue receiving MTV, CNN and AMC then you have to subscribe to a group of channels that includes STARZ. If you want to continue receiving TBS, CMT and ESPN then you have to subscribe to another group that includes Showtime. Or as the cashier put it, you get the premium channels for free. Although my cable bill suggests different. I bet if I had each package itemized, the so called free STARZ would still cost $16.
I was still a bit confused as to exactly which channels I had and which I didn't. Free channels I use to have like MTV Classic are now locked with the message that I will need to call my cable company to subscribe to the package that channel is in. But apparently I also had Showtime? If you have Spectrum, do something you haven't done in years. Go channel surfing. You will be surprised what premium channels you have and didn't know about, and how many free channels are now locked.
No Spoilers Here, Just Complaints About Spoilers
After discovering I had HBO, I could have immediately joined in on the fun and watched the same season premiere as everyone else. But this season is the final chapter of a decade long saga. You don't start stories on the final chapter, you start with Chapter one. So my goal was to watch as many of the past episodes as I could each day until I was finally caught up with this season. Hopefully that could be done before the last couple of episodes air, and before this season is ruined by spoilers.
And that is the biggest problem. Spoilers. As I said, I made it a point to avoid any spoilers for Game of Thrones in the past decade just in case I actually got around to watching it. But here I am, midway through the series in the 4th season, and so far every major twist I already knew was going to happen. The spoilers didn't come from friends or family members, or from some online troll, or from overheard conversations in an elevator. They came from Mass media.
The reason why George RR Martin's book series A Song of Ice and Fire from which Game of Thrones is based had a following was it was full of plot twists no one saw coming, and the shocking deaths of many of the lead characters. Take that away and all you have is a medieval fantasy. The books and the television series thrived on the "Oh Sh#t" moments. Spoiling those ruins the viewing experience. Knowing this, why do other television shows and news papers feel the need to reveal every shocking moment?
And you are never given time to avoid the spoiler. When one of the major characters died, it was on the front page of two of my local newspapers. Two newspapers reporting that a fictional character has been killed, along with a still from the episode of the character lying dead on the ground. And it isn't just local newspapers who felt the need to spoil. About a week before I found out I had HBO, 60 Minutes ran a story on Game of Thrones. The promo for the piece was a montage of spoilers, including what would have been the most shocking death from Season One. All in a few seconds, not giving me much time to turn the channel before it was too late.
The biggest spoiler of all was some mischief at a wedding. Something that has become the signature scene for the entire series. ( ...aside from a walk of shame which is the other signature scene. And yes, I know that one is coming up as well. ) The events of the wedding were meant to be a surprise to the viewer. But the next day every morning talk show had to discuss it. Even though they thought by not mentioning which characters were involved that they were not spoiling the scene, it was easy to fight out what happened. Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, E! News and other shows like them aired YouTube footage of viewers reacting to the wedding, further spoiling the surprise for viewers who hadn't seen the episode yet. Those videos were taken by viewers who had already read the books and knew the "prank" was coming, and wanted to tape the reaction their friends who hadn't read the books. At least the literate knew enough not to spoil the episode. After a few months some television personalities even began spilling the entire scene under the premise "Everyone has seen it by now."
Which calls into questions, what is the waiting period until it is okay to reveal spoilers on any movie or television show? One week? One month? One year? The correct answer is never. You can't assume that you waited long enough for everyone to have seen something by now. We live in an age of Hulu, home video, and an ever increasing number of cable networks. The old days where something would air once and probably never again are long gone. And with it the restriction limiting the viewing of a program to a specific date and time. Which means people will be watching Game of Thrones for the first time indefinitely, perhaps even hundreds of years from now.
HBO reported that 17 million viewers watched the season premiere of Game of Thrones, which was the biggest ratings the network has ever seen. But that is just shy of 6% of the United States population. Which is hardly everyone. If those ratings represent the maximum number of Game of Thrones regular viewers, then 94% of Americans still haven't seen the series. Are we to assume they never will? What about those too young to be allowed to see it? Or are on a budget and currently cannot afford cable. Or currently live in a household that doesn't have cable. A good number of that 94%, which is somewhere around 310 million potential viewers, could eventually get around to watching Game of Thrones. Why should their fun be spoiled?
Mass media use to get it. There was a time when you could read Variety without worrying it would give away the ending of Citizen Kane. Or watch a Tonight Show interview with Charlton Heston without Johnny asking him about the twist endings to Planet of the Apes or Soylent Green. The word Spoiler didn't exist, because people knew enough not to spoil.
Take the Shakespeare tragedies, which generally have a higher body count than Game of Thrones. Those plays have been around for nearly 400 years. And yet only those who have seen one of the plays, or a film adaption, knew all the details. Whenever 60 Minutes did a story on the latest film adaption of a Shakespeare play, they never felt the need to mention how each character gets killed. Something they couldn't go through a story on Game of Thrones without doing.
Aside from that, there were the times when someone I didn't know was in the Game of Thrones cast appeared on a talk show and the host told him his death scene was very shocking, comedy skits that gave away plot details, and morning show hosts that felt they needed to recap the latest episode. They would all most likey say the did this all because Game of Thrones is a major cultural event. I will counter that excuse by saying "Less than 6%". You may think everyone is watching the series because you live in a bubble of Game of Thrones fans. But most of your audience has never seen the show and has no idea what you are talking about. That is until they finally get around to watching the show and realized you ruined it for them.
The one advantage binge watching an entire series has over watching it when it aired, is not having to wait between seasons. I had often heard Game of Thrones fans complain whenever a season ended and they knew that new episodes would not air for another 10 months. Or in the case of the final season, about a 20 month gap between seasons. With binging there us no intolerable wait between seasons. If all goes to plan, I should have finished watching the fifth episode of the final season in time to catch the original broadcast of the final episode.
One question when binging a series is "Is it binge worthy?" For example, I like Agents of Shield. Buy I would get bored with it after a few episodes in a row. In my opinion, binge worthy applies to any series that you enjoy so much that if given the opportunity, you would watch as many episodes as you could in a single sitting. Fortunately Game of Thrones is binge worthy, as I am now committed to watching 72+ hours before the finale. But that is only so far. Many a television series has dropped in quality in later seasons. And the last couple of seasons were written years before Martin had written the final two novels. ( Those novels are still unfinished. ) The writing could get sloppy once the series has to rely on original material.
To get this binge completed on time, a lot of the other series I watch are relegated to the DVR. So I will be watching the final two episodes of the Big Bang Theory some time in the future instead of on the night they air. A few other series I will need to binge in order to catch up on the 3 or 4 episodes I had missed before I can begin watching current episodes again. So, yeah, this is causing havoc with my regular watching schedule. Currently I am on track to obtaining my goal of completing the binge in time to watch the final episode in real time. That is assuming no minor disaster like a power outage, or In Demand having technical problems, or a storm knocking out cable service to my block.
So, is Game of Thrones worth all the trouble? So far I am enjoying it. Although not as much as fans of the series as I don't think it was as good as a few of my other favorite series. But then again, I am not experiencing between seasons withdrawal, and all the big surprises have so far been spoiled. Maybe I would have loved this series more if like others, I had watched it in weekly installments. But ultimately, Game of Thrones is supposed to be a story. And I cannot say if the story is any good until it ends. Will this be yet another popular series with a finale that lets it's audience down. Will things be left unresolved so that the producers can pimp a Game of Thrones theatrical film next year? Will there be an unsatisfying fade to Black, the dumbest character possible ending up on the iron throne, an unreasonably dark ending where everyone dies, or someone waking up to discover the entire series had been a dream? A bad season finale can sink any series. Just look what happened with How I Met Your Mother. Nine seasons leading up to a conclusion that fans called the worst possible the writers could come up with. A non ending or dumb ending could ruin Gane of Thrones. We will just have to wait a d see. And hopefully I'll be able to watch that ending before the viewers complaining let loose a barrage of spoilers.