What is the biggest TV show in the world?
That’s a good question. And, despite the image I’ve put at the top of this piece, I don’t think the answer is Game of Thrones, the series that has just aired its last episode (Don’t worry – no spoilers here).
But what does the question even mean?
The most watched?
The most impactful?
The most profitable?
The most pirated?
The most loved?
There are lots of measures for television success, and different parties will have different views on them. If you’re the rights holder of a TV series (not necessarily the same thing as the network that airs the series in its home territory), then revenue is probably the key measure.
And while revenues are often driven by viewing figures, they’re not necessarily aligned. You might have a series that is very profitable on premium subscription channels, and generates income, but does not generate the same viewership as a series that mostly airs on free-to-air channels which generates advertising revenue. Beyond those, there are streaming, international and syndicated sales, as well as merchandising revenue.
While real revenues are extracted by the rights owners, the actual value of a series might be higher to the networks that carry it. Returning again to Game of Thrones, the value to Sky in Europe of having the rights to the series is probably a significant driver of overall subscriptions to the service. I know of at least one household that has been waiting for Game of Thrones to end before they switch to Virgin Media which doesn’t carry Sky Atlantic.
Game of Thrones has run for 8 seasons, but think of a brand like Law and Order, CSI or NCIS? These ran for many more seasons, across many strands, cumulatively airing hundreds of episodes. There’s probably barely a territory in the world where all three of these ‘brands’ are aired daily.
They’re to a large extent procedural without especially important long term story arcs – so they can be watched in pretty much any order.
They’re suitable for US network television – which makes them by and large suitable for every other TV network in the world. No editing for sex, violence or bad language necessary.
There are enough episodes of each of these to ‘strip’ them across a week. You can air these series in syndication ad infinitum with more than a year’s worth of each series available.
The themes of these series are basic and translate to most cultures. The good guys catch the bad guys. By the end of each episode, the bad guys are, usually, locked up – or dead. The show essentially resets for the next episode.
It’s these series that are almost certainly the most watched. They’re not the most pirated, because nobody needs to pirate them. Switch on TV, and one will be along soon enough.
I have no idea what the cumulative global audience of the CSI franchise has been – but it’ll be well into the hundreds of millions.
Game of Thrones, on the other hand, mostly airs on premium subscription channels around the world. That automatically reduces the available audience by a lot. There’s no accurate count – disbelieve anything you’ve read. Global audience figures mostly come from the fever dreams of PRs. See also the number of people watching the Olympic Opening Ceremony or World Cup Final.
Piracy can be used as a proxy for global audience figures. We’re told that there were 55m pirate streams/downloads of the premiere of season 8 of Game of Thrones. That was within the first 24 hours.
It sounds like a big number. Except that there are 7.5bn people in the world, not all of whom have a TV – or electricity (never mind an interest in fantasy television). Plus, I have my suspicions about the number. The same company claimed that there were more than 1 billion streams/downloads of season 7. But this is misleading too, since you need to divide that number by the number of episodes to get to something like 143m illegal streams/downloads an episode.
Shows like CSI and Law and Order do have their own fanbases, although I wouldn’t pretend those fanbases get close to the scale of those for fantasy or SF shows. And Game of Thrones undoubtedly has more merchandise than Law and Orders: SVU.
A show like Game of Thrones is considered to be more culturally important. Magazines don’t tend to feature the stars of NCIS on their covers quite as much. There are features about what Game of Thrones mean in the broadsheets. You certainly won’t get The Today Programme discussing CSI: Miami’s lasting cultural impact.
Returning to my opening questions. Let’s try to answer them.
Which show is:
The most watched? Nobody really knows, but I suspect that it’s a generic crime series like Law and Order or CSI. It could be a sitcom like Friends or The Big Bang Theory, but I’m not sure they have quite the global appeal beyond English language markets.
The most impactful? Maybe. In US publications. This year. But you could have made the case for The Sopranos or Mad Men at various points. In the UK, something like Fleabag or Bodyguard probably had as many column inches about it. Outside the English language world? I’m not so sure.
The most profitable? Unlikely. It’s too expensive, and there aren’t enough episodes. Cop shows work better with more audiences in more countries. And it’s also worth mentioning that a relatively cheap show to produce like Judge Judy, has the most expensive TV star in the world. $147m in 2017! I’m guessing that show is pretty profitable if they’re paying their star that much.
The most pirated? Perhaps Game of Thrones wins that crown. But mostly by virtue of mostly being on premium subscription channels.
The most loved? Impossible to say. SF and Fantasy shows create a more visible – and vocal – fanbase than many genres. But soap operas have incredibly loyal audiences who love them too.