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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.