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‘Breaking’ Record: What Boosted Walter White’s Ratings?

Netflix binge-watching may have helped double Breaking Bad's final-season debut. But as Walt knows, distribution means nothing without a killer product.

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Frank Ockenfels / AMC

Never doubt Walter White’s ability to boost his numbers. In this case, we’re talking not about the percentage purity of his crystal meth or the profits of his operation but the ratings for Breaking Bad, which returned Sunday night for its final run of eight episodes to 5.9 million viewers–more than double its previous season premiere.

It may be too sweeping a statement to say this never happens, but: this never happens. Not, anyway, for TV shows that have already aired for five years. Not for serial dramas, which tend to lose rather than gain viewers over time, even the greatest of them. (Even The Sopranos’s ratings peaked with its fourth season.) Not for shows that, despite full-throated critical praise for years, have chugged along with respectable cult-hit ratings at best. Even shows that do grow into big hits over time—The Big Bang Theory, say—do it gradually, not by doubling in the space of one season.

This is like waking up on your 70th birthday, tying on your running shoes, and knocking half an hour off your best marathon time. It’s striking and rare enough that people are going to look for the reasons, in hope of reproducing its success.

In a quick analysis, Variety gave credit in large part to Netflix–the service, often cited as a rival to traditional network and cable TV, which could in this instance be its savior. The thinking is that, though Breaking Bad has been available on streaming and DVD for a while now, enough people were motivated to catch up for the finale–and, maybe, micro-targeted by Netflix’s recommendation algorithms–that Breaking Bad returned with a new, secret monster audience that suddenly came out of the woodwork Sunday night.

Maybe. Netflix and binge-viewing are  new enough mass-media phenomena that we don’t really have a track record for how it affects larger viewing patterns, especially as it becomes more widely used. We lack the data points–largely because, as with the viewership for its original shows, Netflix keeps that vast, granular trove of data to itself.

There are other factors that could have juiced Walter White’s return. It’s the final season, so fans who used to wait to binge episodes all at once may want to catch the new ones live. But other final seasons have not seen nearly this kind of explosion. There’s been a ton of critical praise, media hype, and promotion by AMC, including marathons of Breaking Bad leading up to the new season. But again, all that has happened before, including on past seasons of Breaking Bad itself–see also every new season of Mad Men.

Then again, it’s not as if Netflix just became a factor yesterday, or even in the last year, yet we haven’t seen a season-to-season boost on this magnitude for anything else. It may be that Netflix–the ease of access, the narcotic pleasure vortex of bingeing, the potential for hooking new viewers–is, in chemistry terms, an accelerant. It increases a ratings boost when other factors also align: a big publicity push, a final season, a rising chorus of praise.

And, of course, a great, great show at the heart of it. Which is why, much as other networks may not want to hear it, the best way to get a boost from binge viewers like Breaking Bad got is to, well, make the next Breaking Bad. Without that, you get no word of mouth, no new fans willing to mainline 50-plus hours of TV to catch up. As Walter White has taught us, distribution and strong partners are important. But it means nothing unless you have the best product.

16 comments
blue_morpho
blue_morpho

Netflix and online-viewing in general play important roles, in that they brought everyone up to an amazing cliff hanger. The ratings were so high because those who caught up with the show did not want the next episode to be spoiled for them. If netflix were really that important, people wouldn't have a problem waiting to see the next episode online. No, they wanted to see it before they heard about it.

nalexf25
nalexf25

Netflix should be thanked but we should also thank piracy. I personally pirated the show for the first years it was out but now I actually have AMC to watch breaking bad the second it comes out as their is delays when waiting for pirated material(a few hours up to a day) and it would be torture not to watch it right now. I got about 15-20 different people to watch the show by word of mouth. I can only imagine the butterfly effect of them convincing other people around them to watch it but believe me piracy and netflix planted the seed here. 

aztecian
aztecian

this show is racist.  it portrays hispanics as drug dealers, bumbling idiots and at best simple minded.  it should be banned. 

TomShaw
TomShaw

A couple points:

1) Quite a few shows are having banner Summers this year:

Under The Dome should overtake The Following to be the #1 new broadcast show of the season (in A18-49), Time Warner spat or not. How? Why?

The CW's Whose Line is it Anyway? revival is pulling down 18-49 numbers on par with some of their biggest hits. Must be those teen heartthrobs, Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie.

 If anything, the ratings we are seeing make the real goal of the year-round broadcast scheduling being announced obvious: trying to find a less crowded market.

2) While show, especially drama, ratings generally decay over time on broadcast, basic cable ratings aren't as generalizable. Many shows, especially recently, hit their ratings peaks years in. (I believe Mad Men's Season 5 Premiere was their high point, and prior to this week, Breaking Bad's high point was their Season 5 premiere.) Similar jumps can be seen in reality hits as well. 

It's not like Mad Men or Breaking Bad weren't receiving press coverage back in their early seasons. It truly does look like there is simply too much product out there, regardless of how high quality it is, for much of the mass market to learn about in the short term.

3) That said, Breaking Bad's ratings jump was huge. So huge that I have to pencil it to multiple factors working in parallel:

A) Simple greater awareness. Some audience that hadn't checked the show out did since last year.

B) Completionism. With a fixed end date, the audience had every reason to finish any outstanding episodes before the final batch was released.

C) Networking. Between Twitter, Netflix, etc., people are now more informed than ever about what their peer group is watching. ("Ever" not including actually speaking with each other, of course.)

D) Cross-promotion. As much as they are hated, who's to say the ads AMC airs for their shows during The Walking Dead didn't help funnel some of that audience to AMC's other dramas?

IPFletcher
IPFletcher

I was wondering how big it'd go- I didn't think it'd bust "Walking Dead" numbers, but I suspected it might be close. Nice to see it happen.  :)

the_minister
the_minister

@aztecian Yeah, that Argentinian Gus Fring was certainly portrayed as a simple-minded dolt, not the smartest guy on the show.

I don't go right for the ad hominem typically, but sometimes it's appropriate: unlike Señor Fring, *you* are a bumbling idiot.

nalexf25
nalexf25

@aztecianIts a show about drug dealers, thus whatever nationalities lie in that show, they will likely be drug dealers and their is whites, blacks, hispanics everything so please do yourself a favor, buy a brain before you comment next time.

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@TomShaw Good point about cable vs broadcast ratings over time; Sons of Anarchy is another that has only grown in 5 seasons. But the scale of this jump is so unlike anything else out there--even recently, in the Twitter/Netflix/whatever era--that it's worth wondering if it's particular to this show & its circumstances, or if it's indicative of some new phenomenon we're likely to see more of.

SukeMadiq
SukeMadiq

@IPFletcher 

It is so far superior to Walking Dead that it is not even funny.  But people like dumb zombie shows more I guess.

nalexf25
nalexf25

@SukeMadiq @IPFletcher 


Walking Dead is still pretty good, but once you factor out the whole zombie effect the acting and plot of breaking bad is light years beyond what we see in the walking dead.

the_minister
the_minister

@buffalo.barnes102 @SukeMadiq @IPFletcher 

The "Talking Braindead."

Never has a show with such potential gone so south.  They could have even had a real actor like Lennie James play Rick & the show *still* would suck.  And Lennie James is BACON.  He makes whatever you put him in better (including the pilot, which is still the best episode.)

That's how bad The Talking Braindead is.