A Song of Ice and Trading Cards: Licensing HBO’s Game of Thrones

November 18, 2011
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Although HBO’s Game of Thrones was always considered a potentially lucrative property for the channel, its success was never a guarantee. This goes for all television programs, of course, but in the case of Game of Thrones it created some particular challenges when it came to licensing the series. While logic would suggest that a built-in fanbase of George R.R. Martin devotees could help fuel sales within ancillary markets (such as merchandise or video games), HBO was particularly cautious with their initial strategy. However, as the series moves towards its second season, the network is taking a more bullish approach, suggesting they at least would like to believe that they have the potential for television’s Lord of the Rings moment.

Acknowledging, of course, that matters of scale would keep this franchise a far less lucrative merchandising opportunity, the fantasy genre (and Sean Bean’s intertextual appeal across the two franchises) does elicit certain comparisons. A recent deal with Dark Horse Comics might sound fairly familiar to those who have read Kristin Thompson’s detailed study of the franchising process surrounding The Lord of the Rings, given that it includes both high-end merchandise (like character statues, character busts or prop weaponry) as well as more commercial forms of licensed materials (like the pictured coasters or trading cards, which fans took up as a [spoiler-filled] hashtag in the wake of the announcement). While the latter may appear on a comic book store’s counter, the former appeal to more “hardcore” fans that desire “official” merchandise of a high quality and value authenticity.

Authenticity is a key term here, given that HBO is clearly invested in questions of quality as it relates to their programming. In fact, the licensing process for the series seems to me to be a question of balancing a level of control over the quality of products related to the series and an effort to both monetize and expand their audience (and thus their subscription base). Before the first season began, they maintained tight control over licensed products, releasing a small collection of t-shirts and other merchandise to their online HBO Store (and its New York City retail location).

However, as the season unfolded, they continually added more merchandise, including a number of t-shirts that immortalized particular quotes from the series. These were often off-handed references rather than key moments (like this “I Made The Eight!” t-shirt that many casual viewers might not even recognize as a line from the series), but they offered an immediate and, more interestingly, serialized form of licensing that would keep fans visiting the site on a weekly basis. The store has grown to nearly 150 items since the first items – two t-shirts bearing logos for the series – appeared in December of last year, and it is the first series-specific store listed on the sidebar of the HBO Store website (above the similarly lucrative, and more highly rated, True Blood).

Now that they are expanding their licensing agreements, however, they are handing over more control to independent companies in the buildup to the second season. In the case of the upcoming video game release developed by Cyanide Studios and published by Atlus for XBox 360, PS3 and PC, however, they are handing over more control than they would like. The video game rights to Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series were sold separately from the TV rights, which meant that HBO found themselves with a lucrative licensing opportunity that someone else controlled. A compromise has led to a branded game that will bear the likenesses and voices of actors from the series but remain in the hands of Cyanide, although HBO made efforts to acquire the gaming rights outright before settling on this arrangement.

However, while HBO intends on promoting the game (which will be released around the time of the second season premiere, alongside the Dark Horse merchandise and the Season One DVD/Blu-Ray release), this foray into licensed games moves them further away from the discourses of quality that drive their brand identity. Generally considered to be rushed titles designed as promotional tools as opposed to satisfying gaming experiences, licensed titles are fairly maligned within the gaming community, and the relatively little information available about this title before its release does little to suggest this will break that particular trend (although that George R.R. Martin was involved in the game’s story could engender some goodwill among fans).

This is not the first licensed game based on a fictional HBO series, as The Sopranos: Road to Respect debuted in 2006, but that (poorly reviewed) game was an effort to monetize a long-running property towards the end of its run. By comparison, the Game of Thrones game comes at a crucial juncture for the series, and will be part of a major marketing push designed to transform the franchise from a cult hit into a mainstream phenomenon. However, if corners are cut in terms of quality in the midst of aiming for this transformation, it is possible that licensing could complicate the quality TV discourses that HBO stakes its brand on (and which earned the series two Primetime Emmy awards and a nomination in Outstanding Drama Series), and could also frustrate the same fans who have responded so positively to HBO’s merchandising efforts to this point (including, as I’ve written about elsewhere, the pre-air transmedia experience campaign organized by Campfire).

The former point raises larger questions about HBO’s relationship with genre franchising that this post doesn’t have time to address. However, regarding the latter point, the economic realities of the series’ production have been highly visible within fan discussion, as the substantial cost of production raises serious questions of the series’ longevity (especially given the length of subsequent volumes, which would push an adaptation of even just the existing books to 6+ seasons). Fans know that licensing opportunities like this are an important space where additional seasons could be rendered financially viable, and thus might embrace a mediocre licensed title or a cheesy fridge magnet if it means HBO has the potential to continue adapting the series for years to come.


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6 Responses to “ A Song of Ice and Trading Cards: Licensing HBO’s Game of Thrones

  1. Karen on November 18, 2011 at 12:07 PM

    As a GoT fan and longtime reader of the series I find this interesting, but since I’m also an exec in the licensing business I find it *fascinating*.

    From a professional perspective, adult genre licensing can be profitable as incremental income. But it’s never going to drive enough revenue to justify a season renewal, or if it did it would be a minor miracle. Success in licensing is fickle, and you can have unlikely brands come out of nowhere to the sound of cash registers ca-chinging. But the average TV show can only really pay for itself via licensing through toys-hat’s why so much of the licensing world is focused on preschool-scale of toy sales. And GoT is not an average TV show. It is hellishly expensive. A licensing program would have to be a knocked out of the ballpark success to even be more than a drop in the bucket of that kind of funding. Realistically DVD sales are probably the only traditional ancillaries area where sizeable money will be made.

    I do think less traditional areas bear a lot of potential though, and I look forward to seeing what HBO do with those rights. Certain digital areas, virtual worlds, MMOGs… That’s definitely interesting.

    And one final point – I thing what fans of the books want most is new content. Good merch can work, especially of the quality you describe above, which embraces the world and has a sense of humor. But I think additional content (from GRRM probably), in whatever media, would be the biggest draw. Problem is, aside from rights issues, fans and HBO alike want Martin working on the next book, not some licensed product.

    Anyway that’s my 2 cents!

    • Myles McNutt on November 18, 2011 at 12:17 PM

      Thanks for a unique and valuable perspective, Karen!

      I agree that there’s no way that licensing will literally “pay” for a season renewal, but I think HBO sees licensing at least in part as a branding exercise. The more merchandise out there, the larger the potential reach of the program, and thus the more subscribers that HBO might draw to the channel. The ancillary revenues will likely be incremental, but given that HBO monetizes “viewers” more directly than broadcast networks through a subscription model, I do think that getting Game of Thrones into places like comic book stores or video game shelves (and web sites/outlets related to those physical locations) has a different sort of value.

      But only time will tell in terms of how successful that strategy will be (and, as I was discussing on Twitter, how HBO could be able to measure its success).

      • Karen on November 18, 2011 at 1:29 PM

        Absolutely – I completely believe in the power of licensing to add value to content – if I didn’t I probably wouldn’t be in licensing! Obviously some instances are more commercial (ie cynical!) than others, but for example I really think quality branded toys help kids use their imaginations more and interact more actively with their favorite TV shows.

        And I very much hope that HBO gets enough traction via merch to give them a positive attitude toward continuing the series! One particular advantage of quality merch that’s aimed at a very niche collector audience is that the revenues can continue long after a series is off air…as long as the run was extensive enough.

  2. Samantha Close on November 24, 2011 at 4:29 AM

    Very provocative post!

    I’m a bit curious about what you’d say the goal of the merchandising is for HBO. Do you think the idea is mainly to draw in new viewers (i.e. video game player sees the GoT game, picks it up, and decides to watch the show) or to give existing fans a way to support the production? To me, the second option seems to make more sense (particularly given the “serial” merchandise idea) if only because of the quality control issues you mention with things like the licensed game; the bad reputation of licensed games limits their audience, in many ways, to the pre-existing fanbase.

    I find the idea of fans buying the merchandise to support the show interesting in this case because it’s also the logic behind much of indie production on the web. As Karen points out, though, it’s hard to imagine HBO supporting a series like this on coasters and trading cards (just a bit more expensive than Hasbro’s My Little Pony). That seems to put the fan purchase onto uncertain ground–if they’re not buying what they think they’re buying, i.e. more production, is there something troubling here?

    • Myles McNutt on November 25, 2011 at 1:50 AM


      Thanks for the comment. To your first question, I think it’s an issue of visibility combined with maximizing revenue potential. The latter point, I think, speaks to speaking to the existing fanbase, and expanding the revenue potential for the series (albeit, of course, in a limited capacity that wouldn’t fund the show in its entirety). The former, however, speaks more to the importance of HBO’s subscription model: the more people that are aware of the series, the more people might potentially subscribe. Licensing offers more visibility within spaces that we might not normally associate with the HBO audience, and thus a potential expansion of the subscription base (which is part of HBO’s goal with genre programs like Game of Thrones or True Blood).

      On your second point, I think it’s less that they’re buying “more production” and more that their support is a way of directly showing their commitment to the series. I was pushing the length limits as it was here, but when I suggest licensing as a space where more seasons might be gained it is less in terms of actual funding and more in terms of evidence of fan commitment that will continue to build/keep subscribers and make the series a draw for HBO.

      On that level, it’s fan behavior less similar to indie production and more similar to fan campaigns surrounding series like Chuck, in which fan willingness to purchase subs or coasters is less about money and more about how that support may reflect a stable fan base HBO could rely on for multiple seasons.

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