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Fantasy stories, in recent years, have become the stuff of prestige TV. This isn’t to say the genre wasn’t always prestigious, but now properties like The Sandman and The Witcher are getting bigger budgets and bigger stars than they ever have before. Arguably, this is due to the wild success of Game of Thrones, but even that show owed a little bit of its appeal and popularity to another fantasy franchise: The Lord of the Rings. In the next two weeks, the two will go head-to-head—and determine the future of television in the process.
Frankly, this showdown has little to do with either House of the Dragon (the Thrones prequel that launches Sunday) or The Rings of Power (the upcoming Lord of the Rings show) and everything to do with the state of TV itself. In the time since HBO announced it was making a Game of Thrones spin-off, its parent, WarnerMedia, merged with Discovery, creating a company that seems more inclined to run a lean operation than blow millions on pointy chairs. Meanwhile, Rings of Power, which launches September 2, is airing on Amazon Prime, a streaming service with seemingly limitless resources.
Both shows have the potential to be hits, but their ability to manifest that might depend on how long they stay funded. As The New York Times noted this week, “HBO’s new corporate overlords, executives from Discovery, have a crushing $53 billion debt load, and they have been looking for savings—in other words, high-cost Thrones spinoffs had better pay off … Will two splashy, big-budget fantasy series be too much for some viewers?”
This sets up a weird dichotomy. Game of Thrones, let’s be honest, did not end well. Public opinion on the finale was lukewarm at best, but it still got a ton of attention. HBO greenlit its prequel as a way to milk more viewers out of the franchise—and now the network needs them more than ever. Amazon, on the other hand, ordered The Rings of Power partially because Jeff Bezos is a huge J.R.R. Tolkien fan and Jeff Bezos can do what he wants with his billions.