If "Game of Thrones" costs around $6 million an episode to make, and there are no commercials shown during the show, how does anybody make money off the series?
By being insanely, widely, and increasingly popular, that's how.
And by the way, some episodes of "Game of Thrones" actually have cracked that obscene average budget of $6 million per. That Battle of Blackwater episode? Where the Imp leaked a ship's worth of highly flammable Mountain Dew into the harbor and blew up half of Stannis's army? That cost a reported $8 million. So there.
If math serves, we're looking at an estimated $60 million to $70 million in costs per season — almost as much as a modestly budgeted theatrical film, but without the benefit of theatrical distribution. But no matter, says Jon Lafayette, business editor at the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable.
"HBO is the most profitable network in TV," Lafayette tells me. "They're known for spending a lot of money working with hot producers, spending a lot of money on content and production, and that's why people subscribe to HBO."
More precisely, that's why there are an estimated 30 million to 40 million people between HBO and sister network Cinemax, both of which fall under the same Time Warner umbrella. And Lafayette estimates that about $10 per month goes to HBO from a cable subscriber's monthly premium package.
So. Multiply, say, $35 million times 10, and you get... much more than $70 million.
"They don't have to make money back on advertising," Lafayette says. "HBO also has a healthy aftermarket in DVDs and online products, and that's also become a way to move HBO around the world and into markets where they don't have the HBO channel."
Right around now is where we should mention piracy. "Game of Thrones" remains one of the most pirated shows on the airwaves. But even that fact doesn't make a significant dent in income — at least, not on the subscriber side, and not in the long term.
"We've been dealing with this for 20, 30 years — people sharing [subscriptions], running wires down the backs of apartment buildings," Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes told AdWeek in August. "Our experience is that it leads to more paying subs. I think you're right that 'Game of Thrones' is the most pirated show in the world.
"That's better than an Emmy."
If that analysis doesn't quite convince you, remember this: The DVD for each season of "Game of Thrones" sells for a Lannister-worthy $60-ish on HBO's website.
Still not impressed? Well, how about this nugget of info?
"Remember the HBO series 'Rome'?" Lafayette asks. "Well, that cost something like $10 million.
And HBO didn't exactly go bankrupt while that was on the air.
"Game of Thrones" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
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Leslie Gornstein is an entertainment writer and the host of the weekly Hollywood gossip podcast The Fame Fatale.