One of Emily Timberlake’s earliest memories is of playing in the yard with friends — and then being called inside to watch TV.
“I remember my dad yelling, ‘Emily, “Perfect Strangers” is on!’ ” she recalls, laughing. “I really loved Balki.”
As Timberlake grew older, other must-see shows filled her schedule. “When I was a preteen, it was Thursday-night NBC: “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” she said. “My family were huge ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ fans. I think we watched every single episode of that series the minute it aired on UPN.”
Now 33 and a freelance writer and editor in Oakland, Timberlake largely considers watching new TV episodes the night they air to be a throwback pursuit. “It was very 1950s of us,” she says of her family’s “Star Trek” viewings.
Streaming apps allow her to catch up on cable reruns at her leisure, or binge-watch original programming on Netflix. But there’s one exception: Every Sunday night at 6 p.m., she fires up HBO Go to catch the latest episode of “Game of Thrones” as soon as it drops on the East Coast.
She’s not alone. In interviews with more than a dozen Bay Area “Game of Thrones” fans, nearly all said they consider these epic fantasy series “appointment TV,” keeping their Sunday nights free so they can watch the latest episode. “ ‘Game of Thrones’ is the only show I want to see the minute it comes out,” said Pranay Prakash, 21, a San Francisco startup founder. “I’ll refresh HBO Now on Sunday nights until it shows up.”
Even older fans aren’t immune. “I’m 76. I’m the least likely candidate to get hooked on it,” says Carol Bahr, a Bay Area resident who was first introduced to the show by her son. “But I watch it religiously, the night it airs.”
In an age of on-demand viewing, TV-watching has largely become a solo pursuit — one that no longer even requires a TV. So why are these viewers tied to the clock? In a word: spoilers. When your favorite show is known for casually killing off its characters, even a glance at social media before viewing can ruin the surprises in store.
“I have to watch it as soon as it airs, or it’s going to be spoiled for me,” said Caitlin Podiak, 33. “(After an episode airs), people are already talking about it on social media, and friends are already texting memes about it. If I look at anything on the internet or talk to anyone before I watch it, it’s over.”
By watching right at 6 p.m., Timberlake is usually able to avoid getting spoiled. But when a personal commitment forced her to catch April 28’s much-touted “Battle of Winterfell” episode a few hours late, “my phone was already lighting up with text messages (about the episode) from friends, and I was like ‘No, stop!’ ” she said, laughing. “Twitter is already full of Arya memes, so you really have to go on internet blackout and text blackout until you watch … I literally had to bury my phone in the couch cushions.”
To avoid the temptation of digital spoilers, many viewers surround themselves with IRL friends as they watch, hosting weekly dinners or viewing parties. Prakash said he began watching “Thrones” as a student at the University of Illinois, where his viewing group ultimately grew so large that they rented out a lecture hall to screen episodes. Timberlake’s friend group has set up a TV outdoors for big group showings. This past Sunday, the screen was standing inside the house, as the friends gasped and clutched pillows during the series’ penultimate episode, full of series-defining moments ahead of the finale on Sunday, May 19.
For some viewers, the social aspect of getting together to watch the show has arguably become more important than “Game of Thrones” itself.
“I don’t worry about spoilers — I’ve never really been bothered by them,” said Sandy Martino, 56, of San Francisco. “But I’m going to try to find parties and friends to watch with for every episode this season. It’s a great excuse to see friends.”
“In terms of big, shared experiences, it’s like the Super Bowl, the Oscars,” said Orchid Bertlesen, 36, who’s hosted Sunday-night “Thrones” dinners for friends in her San Francisco home. “You have the time to digest what happened on the episode together, and talk about it and think about it.”
But while the Super Bowl and the Oscars will continue to arrive annually, “Game of Thrones” will end for good on Sunday, May 19. These viewing parties will likely end with it, as fans say they just don’t feel like any other series has the type of cultural consensus that “Thrones” carries.
“There’s other things I might watch the night they air,” Prakash said. “But I can’t imagine having a watch party for any other show.”
The loss of “Thrones” could spell trouble for HBO’s bottom line. Many of the fans The Chronicle interviewed said they are considering canceling their HBO Now subscription after the finale, or dropping the network from their cable package. With other streaming services, from Netflix to Hulu to YouTube TV, competing for their entertainment budgets, the conclusion of “Thrones” presents an obvious opportunity to cut back.
A representative for HBO declined to comment on how much subscription numbers have churned around previous season premieres and finales of “Thrones.” But with the help of customer transaction data, consumer research company Second Measure found that HBO Now subscriber growth has spiked around “Thrones” premieres, then declined by as much as half within six months of each season’s finale. This year’s premiere week drew the most sign-ups in HBO Now’s history, suggesting a similar drop is on the way.
Nonetheless, a source close to the network says they’re not concerned. Overall HBO Now memberships have continued to grow for the past three years, and many viewers who subscribe for “Thrones” ultimately stick around for other programming, whether it’s “Big Little Lies” or “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.”
Still, the loss of “Thrones” is unique for viewers.
“It might be a hole for a while,” Bertlesen said. “Knowing that this has been coming, my husband and I have been looking for something to fill the void. We were hoping ‘Westworld’ would be that, but it’s not quite the same.”
Timberlake, the onetime appointment viewer of “Perfect Strangers,” agrees.
“A show that you host viewing parties for, or making sure you can find a TV for if you’re on vacation? There’s nothing else that fits that mold.”
“Game of Thrones”: Series finale. 9 p.m. Sunday, May 19. HBO.