By Ronald Grover and Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Game of Thrones," HBO's blood-splattered fantasy series featuring dragons, castles and warring families, is turning into a franchise for the premium cable channel that may rival its biggest hit, the mobster drama "The Sopranos."
Like "The Sopranos," "Game of Thrones" has become a revenue magnet for the Time Warner-owned cable channel, attracting licenses for T-shirts, games, even its own line of beer.
The series, a contender in multiple categories at Sunday's Emmy awards, set an HBO record last year when it sold 350,000 season one DVDs during its first week of release, a faster pace than "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City," "True Blood" and other popular series, according to HBO.
"It is a much more crowded landscape today than it was for many of our past series, so for 'Game of Thrones' to break out the way it has is pretty amazing," said Michael Lombardo, president of HBO programming.
"When a show is parodied on 'Saturday Night Live,' portrayed in the opening of 'The Simpsons' and talked about in social media on the scale of 'Game of Thrones,' you can safely say it has broken through into the zeitgeist."
The series, which garnered 16 Emmy nominations for this year's third season, including a best drama nod, is based on author George R.R. Martin's best-selling series of fantasy novels about wars waged between noble houses in a fictional medieval universe.
The show's gory battles and disrobed women appeal to men under 35, videogame players and those who engage in "role playing" games such as "Dungeons & Dragons," said Marty Brochstein, senior vice president for industry relations and information at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association.
While "Game of Thrones" has its share of viewers who fit those profiles, ratings indicate that it has a wider audience. In the spring, it averaged almost 14.4 million viewers for each episode, HBO says, including repeat showings, video on demand and mobile streaming. That's less than 50,000 viewers behind the highest-rated season of "The Sopranos."
The show, with its elaborate sets and lush landscapes, is expensive to produce, with industry estimates of $6 million per episode. HBO won't discuss budgets for its shows but said it receives more than $2.5 million per episode by selling it to outlets in 207 markets outside the United States.
"It is a content pillar for the company," said Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Tony Wible, who follows HBO's parent company, Time Warner . "It is one that definitely gets people talking."
FLASKS AND SHIELDS
HBO doesn't provide information on merchandise and other sales for its shows. But HBO's online store offers 436 "Game of Thrones" items, including flasks, dragon logo rings and soundtracks.
For $300, fans can buy an infantry shield based on those used by the fictional Stark family, one of the noble families fighting for the throne. "King of the North" Robb Stark's sword can be had for $230.
The show's popularity has spawned its own beer, licensed to Brewery Ommegang in a Cooperstown, New York, which in June introduced its second "Game of Thrones" brew, called "Take the Black Stout." The brew is "inspired by the Night's Watch and the men who stand it" from the show, the beermaker said.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board touts the countryside where the show is filmed with pictures of the locations on its blog. "Explore the real world of Westeros," reads the entry. (Westeros is the show's fictional setting.)
For fans, the merchandise is a way to wear one's TV allegiances, literally, on one's sleeve.
Susie Rantz, a communications strategist who lives in Seattle, said her "Game of Thrones" T-shirts provide a way to share her passion for the show with others.
"I have gotten comments at the grocery store," she said. "It is a really fun way to connect with other fans, even people you might not suspect to be 'Game of Thrones' fans."
"Game of Thrones" author Martin, a veteran science fiction and fantasy writer, and Random House, his publisher, have enjoyed the show's TV run as well. Random's Bantam Books unit has sold more than 24 million copies of Martin's five-book "Game of Thrones" series in North America, the company says, including print, digital and audio versions.
Since the show first aired in 2011, the company has also released a book of maps, a cookbook, several calendars and a graphic novel, all detailing the author's fictional world.
Book sales jump at the start of each new season, said Random House spokesman David Moench. And they surged, he said, after the so-called "red wedding" scene in June's "The Rains of Castamere" episode, when the show killed off many of its leading characters in a gruesome knife-slashing scene during a wedding.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Douglas Royalty)