Congratulations, with myriad caveats, to “Game of Thrones” for becoming the most popular series in HBO's history, at least in some ways of measuring these things.
HBO proudly announced on Thursday (June 5) that the current fourth season of “Game of Thrones” is averaging a gross audience of 18.4 million viewers. That surpasses the 2002 season of “The Sopranos,” which had an average gross audience of 18.2 million viewers.
No, “gross audience” doesn't refer to the number of audience members grossed out by that thing that happened in this past Sunday's episode.
Average gross audience refers to the whole kit and caboodle of audience viewership, which includes live viewing, +7 DVR viewership, repeat airings across various HBO platforms, OnDemand, HBOGo and just about every platform you could possibly imagine.
“But wait,” I'm sure you're saying, “I don't necessarily remember how many people did or didn't have access to OnDemand back in 2002, much less to DVRs, but I'm 100 percent certain that HBOGo viewership for 'The Sopranos' that season was zero, so aren't these numbers a little skewed an unfair?”
The answer to that question? Absolutely, kinda.
Viewers have more ways of watching HBO than ever before and HBO has more subscribers in 2014 than in 2002 and the overall TV universe is bigger and more diverse in 2014 than in 2002, so there are many advantages that “Game of Thrones” has that “The Sopranos” did not have. If the “Game of Thrones” tally includes every HBOGo play, it presumably also includes shared HBOGo passwords and whatnot, a practice HBO has tacitly and not-so-tacitly acknowledged and encouraged.
So that's a pretty major advantage for “Game of Thrones,” right?
Well, it's not like “The Sopranos” is without advantages. Before 2004, in its not-exactly-infinite-wisdom, Nielsen measured all of the channels within HBO's universe as a single entity. So if “The Sopranos” aired on a Sunday night, you'd get ratings, but they'd also include HBO2, HBO3, HBOCZECH, anything with an HBO in it. So if 7 million people were watching “The Sopranos” and 200,000 people were watching an airing of “House 2: The Second Story,” Nielsen spit out 7.2 million viewers for HBO's ratings and that's what we reported “The Sopranos” did. There were no alternatives.
As a result, that 18.2 million number for “The Sopranos”? It's really inexact and probably the actual gross viewership was lower, though we don't have a clue exactly how much lower. HBO waited to make its grand proclamation of “Game of Thrones” supremacy until after “GoT” passed the artificial 18.2 million threshold, but there's a good chance that “GoT” has been out-grossing “The Sopranos” for a while now, or at least for much of this season, since “Game of Thrones” had an average gross audience of 14.4 million viewers for last season.
Does that, however, make “Game of Thrones” “the most popular series in HBO history” over “The Sopranos”?
Of course not, silly! “The Sopranos” has an additional decade of DVD sales, HBO replays, HBOGo showings and horribly butchered A&E repeats.
The in-season gross average audience figure is already comparing apples to avocados, but at least it's a comparison. “Game of Thrones” Season 4 is HBO's most popular in-season show by this one somewhat inconsistent standard of measurement. It measures what it measures, but doesn't measure “the most popular series in HBO history.”
If you're curious — and I was — through the season's first seven episodes, that 18.4 million “Game of Thrones” figure breaks down like this: 21 percent comes from the main HBO premiere on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. Another 32 percent comes from DVR viewership. Then you've got 25 percent from after-premiere airings on HBO and other HBO-plex plays. And then, finally, you get 22 percent from OnDemand and HBOGo viewership.