SANTA MONICA, Calif. — After a 20-month absence, “Game of Thrones” stormed back on Sunday night, setting a new ratings record.
The season premiere of the show’s eighth — and final — season had 17.4 million viewers, including viewership through its digital channels, HBO said. The previous record for a single episode of the series was 16.9 million, for the seventh-season finale in August 2017.
HBO had 11.8 million viewers watching it the old-fashioned way on regular television, according to Nielsen. That narrowly missed the record of 12.1 million who watched the seventh-season finale on television.
When there are more television shows than ever and so many of them are watched on viewers’ own schedules, “Thrones” is one of the few hit series left that qualify as appointment viewing.
After Sunday night’s premiere, all of Twitter’s top trending topics in the United States were “Thrones”-related.
Still, many more people will be watching it in the days to come. Last season, HBO said an average of 32.8 million viewers watched “Thrones.”
There are only five episodes left in the series, with four of the last five episodes with run times at around 80 minutes. Sunday’s episode was a relatively modest 54 minutes.
HBO is in victory lap mode as it finally wraps up the most popular show in its network’s history. The network is exploring ways to expand the “Thrones” franchise. A prequel will begin filming next month, though HBO executives have been reluctant to use the word “franchise” in its future development plans for a “Thrones” universe, à la the way Disney has taken advantage of its “Star Wars” franchise.
But it is also an anxious time for the premium cable channel. AT&T, which assumed full ownership of HBO in June, has signaled that it’s bringing great change to Warner Media, HBO’s parent.
Richard Plepler, HBO’s longtime chief executive, stepped down in late February after he felt that he was losing the independence that he was accustomed to. Several other HBO executives have departed in the months since. Robert Greenblatt, the former chairman of NBC Entertainment, took over as chairman of Warner Media’s entertainment division in March.
And HBO will also have to find a way to keep subscribers happy as “Thrones” signs off. The season will conclude its run on May 19.