A Song of Ice and Trading Cards: Licensing HBO’s Game of Thrones
Although HBO’s Game of Thrones was always considered a potentially lucrative property for the channel, its success was never a guarantee. This goes for all television programs, of course, but in the case of Game of Thrones it created some particular challenges when it came to licensing the series. While logic would suggest that a built-in fanbase of George R.R. Martin devotees could help fuel sales within ancillary markets (such as merchandise or video games), HBO was particularly cautious with their initial strategy. However, as the series moves towards its second season, the network is taking a more bullish approach, suggesting they at least would like to believe that they have the potential for television’s Lord of the Rings moment.
Acknowledging, of course, that matters of scale would keep this franchise a far less lucrative merchandising opportunity, the fantasy genre (and Sean Bean’s intertextual appeal across the two franchises) does elicit certain comparisons. A recent deal with Dark Horse Comics might sound fairly familiar to those who have read Kristin Thompson’s detailed study of the franchising process surrounding The Lord of the Rings, given that it includes both high-end merchandise (like character statues, character busts or prop weaponry) as well as more commercial forms of licensed materials (like the pictured coasters or trading cards, which fans took up as a [spoiler-filled] hashtag in the wake of the announcement). While the latter may appear on a comic book store’s counter, the former appeal to more “hardcore” fans that desire “official” merchandise of a high quality and value authenticity.
Authenticity is a key term here, given that HBO is clearly invested in questions of quality as it relates to their programming. In fact, the licensing process for the series seems to me to be a question of balancing a level of control over the quality of products related to the series and an effort to both monetize and expand their audience (and thus their subscription base). Before the first season began, they maintained tight control over licensed products, releasing a small collection of t-shirts and other merchandise to their online HBO Store (and its New York City retail location).
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