Game of Thrones premiere ratings are in, and the results are almost as complex as the show itself.
Sunday’s highly anticipated season 6 return of the Emmy-winning fantasy drama delivered a big ratings record by a key modern metric while slipping for the first time among a more traditional measure.
Overall, when including streaming, Thrones‘ kick-off hour “The Red Woman” was an all-time best for the series with 10.7 million viewers. That number includes the on-air premiere, the show’s first two repeats and early returns from the network’s two streaming services, HBO Go and HBO Now. The tally does not include those who tuned into the premiere as part of HBO’s free preview weekend, which opened the service to non-subscribers (Nielsen does not include viewers who are not subscribed to HBO as part of the network’s ratings).
So overall viewership is up 9 percent from last year’s season 5 premiere (9.8 million) plus tops the show’s previous all-time high, the season 5 finale (10.3 million).
So the ratings were a record-breaking smash, right? Well, not if you only look at Nielsen, which until a couple years ago was all anybody did. If you pull out streaming to look at Thrones‘ on-air numbers, the 9 p.m. premiere (7.9 million) was down 1 percent from last year. When you add in the first two repeats (758,000 and 205,000) the disparity increases to 4 percent. As a whole, HBO has seen some subscribers migrate from the traditional cable and satellite package to their streaming services.
Previously, Game of Thrones — which is HBO’s most popular series of all time — grew its on-air ratings with every premiere, which is itself a nearly unprecedented accomplishment (only Breaking Bad comes to mind as a modern-era drama series that grew its ratings every season, and the AMC drama started at a more modest viewership level than Thrones).
Season 5 of Thrones eventually averaged more than 20 million viewers per episode. HBO will be watching to see in the coming weeks if season 6 can exceed that benchmark.
In terms of piracy, Torrent Freak reports that Thrones is once again on track to be the year’s most-pirated show, but unlike last year GoT did not set a piracy record (and that’s good news for HBO, which has made considerable efforts over the last two years to make new Thrones episodes available worldwide at the same time).
UPDATE: In the U.K., Thrones delivered 2.2 million for its season 6 launch — the biggest overnight U.K. audience for the show ever (and particularly impressive since Thrones debuts at 2 a.m. local time; one employer made headlines by giving its workers vacation time to watch the premiere).
More season 6 premiere coverage: Check out our interview with “The Red Woman” director Jeremy Podeswa, EW has its GoT recap for “The Red Woman” up. Also, we have an interview with Gwendoline Christie on Brienne’s rousing return. And don’t forget to subscribe to our new GoT podcast; listen to the new episode below: