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What Networks Can Learn From Breaking Bad’s Ratings Explosion

Breaking Bad ep 509, shot on 12/13/12 by Ursula Coyote
Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Sunday’s shocking showdown between Breaking Bad’s Walt and Hank was followed Monday by something nearly as stunning: News of a massive surge in the show’s ratings. Per Nielsen, just under 6 million viewers tuned in for the final season premiere, exactly double the series’ previous biggest audience and nearly four times the number of viewers who watched the 2008 series premiere. Almost immediately, in tweets and analyses, journalists who cover television identified Netflix as the reason for the boost: Breaking Bad’s ratings have been on a slow upward trajectory, but the biggest gains have come since the series made its Netflix debut in September 2011, allowing viewers to easily, efficiently, and affordably succumb to proselytizing fans and get hooked themselves. To paraphrase Seinfeld, the Netflix effect is real, and it’s spectacular … but it’s not the only reason for the dramatic rise of Bad: Late surges have happened before, even in the days before TV on demand. It used to happen with the broadcast networks — and still could, if they take the bigger, old-school lesson from AMC about the ever-increasing importance of patience in the world of TV.

Netflix is a factor in the surge, but hardly the only one.
First of all, a little reality check: While Netflix surely played its part in boosting Bad, you can’t attribute all, or even most, of its gains to the service. For one thing, cable and satellite video on demand is becoming an increasingly huge factor in catch-up viewing of shows. “We’ve heard from our [cable operator] partners that VOD has grown exponentially since the end of season five,” AMC president Charlie Collier told Vulture. And while sales of TV shows on DVD have been declining, they’re still substantial, and Bad remains a big seller. An industry source familiar with the data says Bad DVD collections have seen big gains in the past year, something confirmed by a quick check of Amazon’s top 100 DVD purchases. As of Wednesday afternoon, all five seasons were among the top 50 biggest sellers. Digital copies of the show are doing even better: Seasons one and two of the show were both among the top ten best-selling TV seasons on iTunes when we checked. Illegal downloading may also be a factor: TorrentFreak reported that Bad was the fifth most-downloaded U.S. series last year. While many of those stealing Bad may still be doing so, it’s also not far-fetched to think some of those thieves went legit for the final season to get it ASAP.

Also, AMC, intent on capitalizing on the pre-finale frenzy of Bad missionaries, has been keenly working to woo new viewers from its own subscriber base of just under 100 million homes (an audience three times as big as Netflix’s subscriber count). The network began running overnight mini- and all-day marathons of the series throughout the summer, leading up to the midseason premiere. These marathons generated substantial audiences, particularly the season-five catch-up, which culminated with 2.6 million viewers watching last September’s midseason finale: That audience for a repeat was more than almost every live viewer tally for Bad prior to this weekend’s massive premiere. Obviously some of those who tuned in for that rerun were existing fans of Walt and Jesse looking to refresh their memories, but they still chose to do so on AMC, not Netflix. “If you were interested in this show, we made sure you had a chance to see it,” Collier says.

Slow-mo explosions have happened before in TV.
Ratings researchers Vulture spoke with privately this week admitted they were left slack-jawed by the size of Bad’s season-to-season surge. And yet, it is not unprecedented for TV series to pull a Walter White, starting off quiet, unassuming, and almost unnoticed, but ending their runs as icons whose names will live on. Long before DVRs or DVDs, back when tweeting was literally for the birds, Seinfeld took a nearly five-year route to megahit success. For its first four seasons, its ratings weren’t even big enough to land in Nielsen’s top 30. Only in 1993, when NBC moved Jerry and the gang to Thursdays for Season 5, did Seinfeld become a smash, its audience skyrocketing nearly 45 percent in a single season to nearly 30 million viewers. Yada yada yada, a show whose pilot was seen by just 15 million people on a summer day in 1989 (this considered a dismally low audience back then) would end up quintupling its ratings, attracting just over 76 million viewers for its May 1998 finale.

Likewise, The Sopranos went from an average audience of 2.2 million viewers under 50 during season one to 9.4 million by season four. While CBS’s The Big Bang Theory has never really been a “struggling” series, careful nurturing by CBS — plus a huge boost in exposure when TBS started airing repeats on a near-endless loop two years ago — has allowed a show that started off averaging barely 7 million viewers at the end of its first season in 2008 to finally smash through the 20 million viewer barrier earlier this year. And then there’s FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which probably comes closest to matching Breaking Bad’s tortoise trajectory. It initially attracted under 500,000 viewers in its target demo of adults under 35, and grew slowly each season; even by season four, it was still under 1 million younger viewers. Then, in season five, it jumped nearly 60 percent in the demo, to nearly 1.5 million, and then all the way to 1.7 million under-35s in Sunny’s top-rated seventh season, in 2011.

Patience pays.
If there’s a through line to all of these examples, it’s patience — a notion that the broadcast networks have often seemed to have no patience for. They’ve tended to have quick triggers when it comes to underperforming shows, even if there’s evidence that viewers might not yet have found it. ABC, for example, ultimately paid for nearly 60 episodes of Happy Endings, but then rushed those episodes to viewers in a way that made it all but impossible for audiences to make watching the show a habit. TNT execs expressed much love for Men of a Certain Age, but its 22 episodes were divided into three mini-seasons, and the series never aired more than six consecutive episodes. That’s hardly a recipe for building momentum. And while Fox suits are proud of the fact that they gave Ben & Kate a full thirteen episodes to find an audience, that pride misses the point that in today’s world, with a new scripted or unscripted series premiering virtually every single week, it’s almost inevitable that shows are going to get lost. We no longer live in a world where either being on a Big Four network, or airing behind a network hit, is enough to get viewers’ attention.

What Breaking Bad’s late-in-life explosion should underscore is that now, more than ever, TV series need to be treated as assets to be nurtured, rather than widgets to be moved around a scheduling grid, easily replaceable by whatever widget comes off the development assembly line next. Viewers can’t be expected to heed million-dollar marketing campaigns (see also: this summer’s massive movie flops) and immediately tune in when they’re told to tune in. Networks (other than CBS) are no longer living in the TV universe of the past, when even their lowest-rated offerings were guaranteed to pull in bigger numbers than cable shows. Now, Breaking Bad gets more viewers than NBC comedies, Duck Dynasty has a bigger audience than just about everything on broadcast TV in the summer, and The Walking Dead tops everything among viewers under 50. Early adopters helped spread the word to make all of those series much bigger hits than their first season ratings suggested, while Netflix and endless repeats gave those shows an ability to have a longer tail. But it’s impossible for a show to have a long tail if it’s cut down before viewers even know it’s around, a process that these days can take years rather than months.

Exercising patience isn’t easy of course, particularly at broadcast and cable networks owned by corporations intensely focused on the current financial quarter rather than the long-term. “One of the things that kills patience is short-term financial metrics,” Collier admits. “Our job is to balance the creative and business.” And even then, patience doesn’t always guarantee smashing success. NBC couldn’t have been more nurturing of 30 Rock, but show’s always modest audience got even smaller over the years. And some series lend themselves to growing audience and increasing viewer excitement more than others, since they boast narrative arcs that make them must-see: Bad is working toward an explosive finish, but nobody really expects Don Draper to blow up the officers of SCDP on Mad Men, a series whose growth has been not nearly as exponential as Breaking Bad. Still, even 30 Rock and Mad Men proved to be assets in other ways, bringing positive buzz or attracting upper-income viewers coveted by advertisers.

All things considered, if a network likes a show, and there’s evidence of a tiny-but-passionate audience rallying behind it, it surely makes more sense to keep plugging away — for one, two or even three years — than to just keep repeating the process with more and more widgets in the hope of getting lucky. The good news is that networks finally seem to get that the world’s changed. Fox dumped Ben & Kate quickly, but it’s making all the right moves with its patient handling of The Mindy Project. And while NBC last year burned off the promising and well-reviewed Bent in fifteen days, it’s picked up a second season of Hannibal despite the show’s microscopic ratings. As another fall season kicks off next month, perhaps patience will become a rule rather than an exception.

Lessons From Breaking Bad’s Ratings Explosion