‘House of the Dragon’ vs. ‘Lord of the Rings’: Which Epic Fantasy Show Will “Win”?

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The makers of HBO’s House of the Dragon and Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power both agree on one thing: Neither wants their upcoming fantasy epic to be compared to that other fantasy epic that will be rolling out episodes at the same time.

“We’re not even on the same night!” Dragon co-creator George R.R. Martin recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s not a death match or anything. I wish them success. I hope they wish for our success. We don’t have to be bracketed together.”

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The Rings of Power showrunner Patrick McKay recently told a press conference, “We don’t think of the show in terms of [its] genre or other shows that might be out there,” adding, “This is Tolkien’s Middle-earth … we just wanted to be true to that and drown out and forget about what might be happening in another realm someplace else.”

Of course, such viewpoints will be ignored. The media and fans are going to make plenty of sport comparing the two pricey, tentpole swords-and-magic dramas over the coming months. Which show got better reviews? Which show is drawing more viewers? Which has better action, is more diverse, has stronger female characters, and is more true to its author’s source material?

The opportunity for audiences to enjoy a head-to-head fantasy TV Super Bowl face-off of sorts is, in and of itself, rather odd. Both shows have been in the works for ages: Amazon announced its Sept. 2 premiere date a year ago, but then HBO revealed its Aug. 21 premiere date in March. Both shows are rolling out episodes on a weekly basis, providing several weeks of overlap. And while HBO brass insist they were merely playing their own game when they chose their competing date, is that to say HBO really didn’t think about it? Not even a little? “It’s nice we ended up being a couple weeks ahead of time,” is all HBO’s chief Casey Bloys will say.

So let’s play the game, if only because everybody else will too: Which show — and which platform — will “win”? Or, at least, win the most?

Heading into their respective premieres, one suspects that Dragon has an inside track, in terms of brand and platform. HBO already produced a decade of Thrones content that’s been hugely successful, and its subscription list is stuffed with Thrones fans. Amazon’s Prime Video has yet to demonstrate it can pull off a TV-sized LOTR, and it will have to draw non-subscriber J.R.R. Tolkien fans to its service. Indeed, some new data from “content intelligence company” Diesel Labs suggests Dragon has double the current audience interest of Rings of Power (though Amazon’s marketing blitz hasn’t really begun, and HBO’s is at full steam).

On the other hand, Amazon’s half-billion investment in Rings of Power is unprecedented and extraordinary, and while money can’t buy quality, it sure doesn’t hurt — especially when it comes to building a sprawling fantasy world that’s a visual feast. Also, director Peter Jackson’s LOTR movie trilogy was a global blockbuster, and there’s a lot of built-in nostalgia for Middle-earth. Another factor in Prime Video’s favor is that LOTR is more family-friendly, and this shouldn’t be discounted. Disney+’s The Mandalorian became a blockbuster not because it drew aging original trilogy fans, but because it captivated their younglings as well.

At this point, I’m probably supposed to say something about lingering resentment about the ending of Thrones impacting Dragon. A recent New York Times feature on Dragon spent a lot of ink on whether GoT season eight will hurt the prequel. Such concerns are probably silly. Not that the backlash isn’t real. But the original show outraged viewers with all sorts of creative choices over the years, and its viewership climbed every season. And anybody passionate enough about Thrones to be genuinely upset about its climax is likely also enough of a fan of Martin’s world to want to give Dragon a try.

Reactions to other franchise complaints suggest the same thing: Many Star Wars fans thought The Book of Boba Fett was a disappointment, yet Disney+’s next Star Wars series, Obi-Wan Kenobi, broke Disney+ opening weekend streaming records this spring. And while Marvel’s recent Thor: Love and Thunder might have been a mess, nobody thinks it will hurt Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 next year.

Zooming out wider, there’s the question of which platform will come out on top. Or, perhaps more interestingly, which has the most to lose.

Yet again, it’s tough to make a judgment, even though there’s plenty to discuss. Amazon’s $465 million investment for a single season of The Rings of Power is a double-edged Morgul blade. If the show flops, it will be a write-down the size of five Batgirls. And Prime Video’s must-see content bench of hits isn’t as deep as HBO’s. In other words: Amazon really needs this to work.

As for HBO, the company might have more content to fall back on should its $200 million Dragon not fly, but one could argue the stakes are just as high for its streaming service, HBO Max. The company has at least seven Thrones successor shows in development — a massive amount of potential content that would turn Thrones into a superhero-style franchise if everything went well.

Streaming services are, after all, businesses that sell addictive distractions. It’s all fine and good to have one hit show with an intense fan base that hooks subscribers for a quarter of the year and then vanishes for 12 to 18 months until its next season. But having a massively popular year-round connected universe  — like the way Disney+ always has another Marvel or Star Wars show coming down the pipe — can keep subscribers from coming and going. With Disney+ recently surpassing Netflix in total subscribers, clearly the Mouse House is onto something with its strategy (and while only HBO has announced additional Thrones development so far, you can bet Amazon would likewise order up more Tolkien-verse projects if LOTR is a hit).

At this point, you’ve hopefully found all this competitive analysis interesting, but might also be getting the sense we’re not going to definitively say which show will “win.” In our defense, you probably knew we weren’t going to actually pick one show because it’s impossible to know at this point and, let’s be honest, nobody wants to go that far out on a limb.

But here’s reality: This is not a zero-sum game, no matter how much everybody might want to make it out to be. Both shows could easily be critical and commercial hits. In fact, the two might actually help each other — an idea that nobody has seemed to consider. Coverage and comments discussing the two as rivals could make fans of one show curious to check out the other so they can, in turn, participate in the conversation. A rising fantasy tide might lift all boats, etc.

But “everybody’s a winner” is, let’s face it, not much fun. The Iron Throne is a single seat, not a bench. There is but One Ring to rule them all, not a fistful. So, let the dueling begin.

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