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Life after 'Game of Thrones:' How we consume TV is changing

April 1, 2019

ASU media studies professor — and 'GoT' fan — discusses the HBO juggernaut's impact in advance of its final season starting April 14

Editor’s note: Winter is coming. As are spoilers. But to be fair, the show has been out since 2011, so if you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

So said Cersei Lannister to Ned Stark in the first season of HBO’s ultra-successful adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s acclaimed book series, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” And on “Game of Thrones,” Ned Stark — and plenty of others — have already died. 

It remains to be seen who will win, but one thing is clear: The end of the omnipresent award-winning series will leave a gaping pop culture hole.

The final, six-episode season premieres on April 14. 

In preparation for dragons and direwolves monopolizing our global attention for the next six weeks, ASU Now talked with Kevin Sandler, an associate professor of film and media studies in the Department of English and a self-proclaimed “Game of Thrones” diehard, about the show’s impact, how TV is changing and who he thinks should sit on the Iron Throne in the end.

Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: So you’re a fan of the show?

Answer: I love the show. It’s the only show I watch. I have a lot of kids (laughs). So obviously I don’t watch a lot of TV because “Game of Thrones” isn’t on very often. But I will watch it the night that it comes out, all the time. 

Q: The final season of “Game of Thrones” feels like an event. How has on-demand, streaming and social media changed the way that we communally experience TV events?

A: With the rise of binge-watching, it’s harder and harder to make a case for somebody to be somewhere at a particular time and get excited about it. When you start to have the option of when and where and how and with whom you get to watch something, that control over that consumption will inherently transform the kind of stuff that gets made — and the way that networks respond to such new technologies. 

At one time, everybody was watching “Friends.” Everything changed around the year that ended. The networks had to deal with this upstart place called Netflix in ways that they didn’t have to deal with upstarts in the cable world when people started doing original content.

With “House of Cards” and the growth of binge-watching — that was soon followed by “Orange is the New Black” — quality came with it. You’re not going to binge something that isn’t good.

So we’ve got cord-cutting. We’ve got binge-watching. We’ve got streaming services. We have handheld devices. A series of things that gives greater control across a number of platforms by a bunch of different groups, disrupting how things used to be. 

Q: That’s one thing about “Game of Thrones”: You need to watch it every Sunday night or miss out on the conversation. Do you think eventually that Netflix kind of user control will force the traditional weekly series model out? 

A: Well, you still have a lot of people who watch TV in the regular way — the people who grew up on those models, including me, I’m almost 50. But you’ve got the 60-year-olds, the 70-year-olds, the 80-year-olds.

And the traditional ad-supported broadcast models, which are now supported through ratings that not only are live, but live-plus-3 and live-plus-7 ratings — so you have Nielsen adapting to time shifting. And that enters into the way that ad rates are calculated. So that won’t go away soon. Broadcast shows are very broad, and there’s still an audience for broadness, for things that aren’t particularly challenging, per se, or that are familiar. 

Obviously, that will change eventually. But you still have advertisers who need to reach people. And those are car companies and movie companies who really spend a lot of money on reaching people. That’s really the only mass form of advertising delivery that exists today: broadcast television. 

Q: What do you think is behind the massive success of “Game of Thrones”?

A: What HBO has demonstrated is that to make something an event, it’s no different than making something an event at the movies: It needs to be quality. It needs to be high production value. It needs to appeal globally, maybe something that is less geographically situated or culturally located, hence something like “Game of Thrones,” fantasy genres and so on. 

(Add to that) having the kind of global networks in terms of, say, ownerships of various systems and partnerships with which you can launch something all at the same time. … This is what Netflix does. How do you expand your reach and be able to pay for all this content? … They can launch it almost simultaneously in different languages across all their markets. HBO remains relevant because they can do that same thing with “Game of Thrones.” Those global connections make something an “event.” It kind of gives it a bigness, a spectacularity and expansiveness. That’s eventizing something. … (They) keep it secret, build momentum, don’t let any details come out — so you have to see it. 

Because obviously a lot of shows don’t do that. They try. But they don’t do it.  

Q: “Game of Thrones” is reminiscent of when you’d watch must-see TV on a Thursday night and that’s what everyone was talking about at work the next day. How is social media changing the experience of talking about “watercooler” shows?

A: It’s funny, I remember teaching the watercooler (concept) when that term came about. You didn’t want to be left out. … In order for things to be really popular, especially when you have like 500 series that are on — for people to commit themselves, they want to know that they can experience it not just on other platforms, but in a lot of other types of contexts.

Q: With the way that we’re now consuming media, do you think there will ever be another show that is this big of a juggernaut?

A: Of course. Did anyone think that something would be as big as “The Sopranos”? And then along comes “Game of Thrones.” The scale and the achievements of “Game of Thrones” is just extraordinary. It’s hit its series of road bumps, particularly with its sexual violence, and rightly so, but the achievements of the actors and the directors and the screenwriters and the budget and the creative freedom — it was a leap of faith. But there always will probably be something. Somebody will discover something. 

Q: Do you think that collectively people seek out that kind of cultural touchstone? 

A: People still, I believe, want to have that kind of collective experience that is shared, whether it’s in a theatrical space or a more amorphous global space, (knowing) that they are not alone. … There’s something very appealing to watching something alone at a very cheap price point, but there still is this kind of need. The movies that we see on screen are tapping into that cultural need on a big grand, glamorous scale that is broad in its stories and expansive in its universes and speaks not to one culture but to many. Anything apocalyptic — whether it has to do with climate change or authoritarianism or aliens coming — that’s what is at the theaters today. 

Q: The television series is now “off-book,” having outpaced its literary source material. How does that affect the show?

A: We know from the last season that without a book to adapt, it became quite challenging for the filmmakers to tell the tale. Trying to compare media is really a tricky thing. Obviously they want to resolve it in a way that’s going to satisfy as many people as possible.

(But) a lot of the viewers don’t really care about the books. … What they’re dealing with in any climactic season is tying up the loose ends, making sure it’s satisfying and that the characters — whether they die or they live — are justly served, setting it up for these prequels, not destroying the brand and delivering on what you expect.

There (are) so many storylines. Sansa has gotten short shrift. Arya got short shrift last season, because we had to get Jon and Daenerys together, and you’ve still got the Greyjoys … So bringing this all together and having to deliver something spectacular, I think character gets lost. I think logic gets lost. And it is a tough balance to do when you know you’ve got to end it.

Q: Who do you think ends up on the Iron Throne at the end?

A: To me the story of “Game of Thrones” is that it’s a story of women coming to power after being abused and tortured and raped and this is what happens. And so, I believe that it’s Daenerys and Jon, or just Daenerys. 

I’d like to say it seems so obvious, and I hope they don’t do the obvious. But Daenerys is a standout character. Her story arc has been privileged among all others; her choices, both positive as well as those that have backfired, have been at the core of the last few seasons. Something that doesn’t include her on the throne doesn’t make sense for all the time that has been spent on her. That would be the only satisfying ending. It needs to be surprising, but it needs to be satisfying. 

So Daenerys. Or maybe the White Walkers. (laughs)

Top photo: Kit Harington (left) and Emilia Clarke as Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen on "Game of Thrones." Image courtesy of HBO

Senior editor , ASU News

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Behind the scenes of the Google Doodle

April 1, 2019

Doodle team lead Jessica Yu talked to ASU journalism students Monday about the importance of visual storytelling

Every day, when internet users Google something, they see a Google Doodle that’s fascinating, nostalgic or beautiful. But they’ll never see a Doodle that’s a commercial.

Jessica Yu, the team leader for creating the daily Doodle — the whimsically designed logo on the main Google search page — said the design will never be used to sell anything.

“We consider it a gift to the users,” she said. “There’s no commercial intent behind it. You’ll never see a Doodle for ChromeBooks.”

Yu spoke about visual storytelling at a “Must See Monday” event at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications on Monday night. 

She said the Doodle started as an “out-of-office” joke several years ago, when Google’s founders were going to the Burning Man Festival. 

“They were trying to indicate to people that if the site broke, they were gone," she said. "So they put a burning man behind the logo and called it a day,” she said.

She said the Doodle shows the humanity behind the Google organization.

“We want people to have that serendipitous moment when they see something they didn’t know before, or an unsung hero in history,” she said.

Google Doodle

Yu has been at Google for about two years, after several years as a visual journalist. After graduating from Stanford University, she became a one-person design team doing graphics, illustration and layout at a small news organization in Honolulu. Then she was hired as a graphics reporter for the Asia edition of the Wall Street Journal, based in Hong Kong. She eventually became head of the visual team for the newspaper, based in New York. But she knew she always wanted to return to the Bay Area. She found out about the Doodle job two years ago via a Google job alert. 

“I was reading the job description: We want somebody who’s a visual person, a storyteller in nonfiction, which journalism should be, and has good judgment,” she said.

“It was a great fit for my skills,” she said. “I didn’t dream about this position because it didn’t exist when I was in college.”

Yu described the process for the Doodles: People inside Google fill out a form to nominate a person or subject for a Doodle, describing why they admire the subject or the emotion they want to evoke, like humor or nostalgia. People outside Google also can send emails or tweet suggestions. The ideas go onto a giant spreadsheet and the team leaders winnow them down and vote on which Doodles will be posted. Then they set the editorial calendar for the entire year. The team will work on 2020 starting this summer. The team creates about 500 Doodles a year but they vary by country and not every person sees every Doodle.

The first Doodles were simple illustrations but they’ve become very sophisticated. Recently, to mark the birthday of J.S. Bach, the Doodle used artificial intelligence to help users compose like Bach. 

Bach doodle

“We were thinking, ‘How cool would it be to jam with Bach?’” she said. The team trained the Doodle using more than 300 Bach compositions to create a four-part harmony based on the user’s notes. 

“We have the ability to make experiences now,” she said. 

Yu told the Cronkite students that creating a portfolio of work is the most important part of getting a job in their field. When she was a hiring manager, she spent about 10 seconds on a candidate’s resume.

“I loved when people showed breadth of storytelling ability and everything they did — ‘I did the coding,’ or ‘I took the photos,’” she said. “When you showed everything you contributed, it’s the most important thing.”

A portfolio of good work is an equalizer, she said.

“It doesn’t really matter where you went to school or worked before,” she said.

“But if you have wonderful clips you produced at your previous job, or at school or even on your own — if you’re good, you’re good.”

Top photo: Jessica Yu, Doodle team lead at Google, discusses the search engine's popular changing logo that celebrates holidays and the lives of newsmakers on Monday, April 1, 2019, as part of the "Must See Monday" journalism lectures. Yu also addressed the importance of visual storytelling in the digital age. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News