NEW YORK -- The crowd packed into Radio City Music Hall for the final-season premiere of HBO's juggernaut drama "Game of Thrones." As audience members took their seats, they were greeted by an announcer who said: "Welcome to the beginning of the end."
For many who attended the gathering this month, it was not hard to hear a more ominous meaning.
Ending a major hit show is not easy for any network. But the departure of "Game of Thrones," which begins its eighth and farewell season on Sunday, comes at a critical crossroads for HBO.
The network has a new owner, and its status as the most distinctive brand name in television can no longer be taken for granted.
"Game of Thrones" has been not only a cultural touchstone, but a ratings behemoth for HBO. The drama about the warring factions of the fictional land of Westeros, based on George R.R. Martin's best-selling books, spurred millions of viewers to sign up for HBO's young streaming service. The series has nabbed 47 Emmy Awards and established lofty standards for splashy TV productions. It elevated HBO's global profile in a way that "The Sopranos," its signature series about a New Jersey mob boss, had not.
Now, the question is how the premium cable network can adapt without its critical darling, especially at a time when it faces rising competition from Netflix, Amazon.com, Disney and others.
"It's a problem when your biggest hit show goes away," said Michael Nathanson, a media analyst at Moffett- Nathanson Research. "The downside is that it is easier for people to drop their subscription to HBO, particularly for the streaming service."
HBO declined to comment for this story.
The end of "Game of Thrones," which will unfold over six episodes this spring, comes during a transition period for HBO and its corporate family. HBO became a global taste-making force by operating as an autonomous, risk-taking and highly profitable venture within Time Warner Inc., which also owned CNN and the Warner Bros. movie and TV studio in Burbank.
In June, telecommunications giant AT&T acquired Time Warner in an $85-billion deal that ushered in a new era and a dramatically different corporate culture.