Search for life after Westeros

| ASSOCIATED PRESS 17 Apr 2019

After the last drop - or gallon - of blood is shed and an exultant victor has ascended to the Iron Throne, viewers may be split over how HBO's fantasy saga ended, but they'll be joined in deprivation.

"What do you do without Game of Thrones?" will be the lament heard after the May 19 finale, said media industry analyst Larry Gerbrandt, of Media Valuation Partners.

The question is even more critical to the pay-cable channel, which soared on dragon's wings with its hugely popular, eight-season adaptation of George RR Martin's novels.

Keeping subscribers on board means more than another hit, even one as globally dazzling as Game of Thrones proved to be. But it's where HBO can start to protect its brand and position, observers say, an effort both demanded and compounded by an increasingly congested small-screen landscape.

"I think they need a prestige show on this level to remain HBO," said Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN. "More than ever, it's really hard to find a hit show and to break through in this marketplace."

Sunday's season premiere underscored the point, with GoT drawing a series-high record of 17.4 million viewers on TV and streaming . It set a streaming record for HBO and reinforced its standing as one of television's most popular shows ever.

The channel is well into the hunt for a worthy successor, with one possibility an untitled prequel to GoT created by Martin and Jane Goldman, and starring Naomi Watts. Set to begin shooting a pilot in June, it's among several potential Thrones spinoffs being weighed.

"We have high hopes" for the pilot, said programming chief Casey Bloys. "But I want to be clear, nobody is going into this thinking that we're going to do a prequel, and all of a sudden everybody who automatically watched Game of Thrones is going to watch this."

That begs the question of what more HBO has to offer. During a period in which GoT was off the air for scheduling reasons, series including Westworld, Sharp Objects and Barry proved strong draws, Bloys said.

"I'm not going to argue that we won't miss Game of Thrones. It's been a fantastic show for us, but life does go on," he added.

GoT was richly and painstakingly produced, filmed in 10 countries including Croatia, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Morocco, Iceland and Spain.

HBO launched in 1972, and at the turn of the century, pop-culture sensations The Sopranos and Sex and the City boosted the channel's visibility, and subscribers and made it a serious player for prestige awards - including cable's first-ever Emmys for best drama.

But that was then, and this is the time of streaming - or, in shorthand, Netflix, along with a growing host of others including Amazon and Hulu - and a shoulder-bumping rush for stars and showmakers to churn out more and more fare for outlets already awash in programming.

Subscribers ultimately will decide whether the shows are what they want. But expanding the pipeline is unavoidable, said media and entertainment analyst Tuna Amobi.

"If there's a brand that survives strictly on name, it's probably HBO," Gerbrandt said.

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