NEW YORK -- The crowd packed into New York's 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 earlier this month, it was not hard to hear a more ominous meaning in those words.
Ending a major hit show is not easy for any network. But the departure of "Game of Thrones," which began its eighth and farewell season on Sunday, comes at a critical crossroads for HBO. The network has a new owner, and its longtime 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, Walt Disney Co. and others.
"It's a problem when your biggest hit show goes away," said Michael Nathanson, media analyst at the New York-based MoffettNathanson 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 television 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. AT&T executives, who renamed the company WarnerMedia, often talk about movies and TV as a means to keep its mobile phone customers hooked on their tiny screens. Then last month came a shake-up in HBO's management, raising questions about potential changes in HBO's programming.
"They've had this management shake-up with the chief executive and other members of the creative team leaving," said Deana Myers, research director for S&P Global Market Intelligence. "So you have to wonder, what direction is the company going to go? It feels like it is in limbo right now."