LOS ANGELES - "Game of Thrones," HBO's blood-splattered fantasy series featuring dragons, castles and warring families, is turning into a franchise for the premium cable channel that may rival its biggest hit, the mobster drama "The Sopranos."
Like "The Sopranos," "Game of Thrones" has become a revenue magnet for the Time Warner-owned cable channel, attracting licenses for T-shirts, games, even its own line of beer.
The series, a contender in multiple categories at Sunday's Emmy awards, set an HBO record last year when it sold 350,000 season one DVDs during its first week of release, a faster pace than "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City," "True Blood" and other popular series, according to HBO.
"It is a much more crowded landscape today than it was for many of our past series, so for 'Game of Thrones' to break out the way it has is pretty amazing," said Michael Lombardo, president of HBO programming.
"When a show is parodied on 'Saturday Night Live,' portrayed in the opening of 'The Simpsons' and talked about in social media on the scale of 'Game of Thrones,' you can safely say it has broken through into the zeitgeist."
The series, which garnered 16 Emmy nominations for this year's third season, including a best drama nod, is based on author George R.R. Martin's best-selling series of fantasy novels about wars waged between noble houses in a fictional medieval universe.
The show's gory battles and disrobed women appeal to men under 35, videogame players and those who engage in "role playing" games such as "Dungeons & Dragons," said Marty Brochstein, senior vice president for industry relations and information at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association.
While "Game of Thrones" has its share of viewers who fit those profiles, ratings indicate that it has a wider audience. In the spring, it averaged almost 14.4 million viewers for each episode, HBO says, including repeat showings, video on demand and mobile streaming. That's less than 50,000 viewers behind the highest-rated season of "The Sopranos."
The show, with its elaborate sets and lush landscapes, is expensive to produce, with industry estimates of $6 million per episode. HBO won't discuss budgets for its shows but said it receives more than $2.5 million per episode by selling it to outlets in 207 markets outside the United States.
"It is a content pillar for the company," said Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Tony Wible, who follows HBO's parent company, Time Warner . "It is one that definitely gets people talking."