Netflix Flexes New Muscle with ‘Breaking Bad’ Ratings Boom

Netflix Breaking Bad

Should Netflix be paying studios for content or the other way around?

Forget Walter White. Netflix may be “the one who knocks.”

If there were any skepticism left about the clout the streaming service possesses, it may have been put to the rest Sunday after the AMC drama series “Breaking Bad” obliterated its own personal-best ratings by scoring 5.9 million total viewers— more than double the previous season premiere.

That kind of growth spurt for a TV series doesn’t happen too often, and for that Netflix must have been a factor. Sure, AMC spent a handsome (and unspecified) amount to promote the series’ swan-song run, but marketing dollars alone can’t account for this kind of leap.

Playing a bigger part could be the availability of an entire library of past seasons in the U.S. that enables curious new viewers to catch up and get funneled back to AMC for the new episodes.

This wasn’t the first season “Breaking Bad” had the Netflix effect working for it, but you could argue it takes more than a year for the full power of the kind of licensing deal AMC signed with the streaming service in 2011 to really demonstrate its value.

Sure, 5.9 million viewers isn’t tremendous in the context of what cable’s best and brightest can do. AMC has seen “The Walking Dead” double that number at its peak performance. But that zombie drama really is in a league of its own when it comes to scripted cable fare, along with maybe only Disney Channel tentpoles like “Teen Beach Movie.”

Six million viewers is a terrific number, but that’s not really the point, either. What’s truly miraculous here is that a series with five seasons under its belt made the kind of ratings quantum leap you just don’t see.

That said, Netflix isn’t going to have a dramatic effect on every drama that comes along. While “Mad Men” has certainly gotten a boost from Netflix over the past few seasons, that show hasn’t seen the kind of step change “Breaking Bad” just experienced, though it will be very interesting to see whether Don Draper could outdo Walter White when it’s time next year for his own final run.

And in a slightly different but comparable experiment, yet another AMC drama, “The Killing,” was able to survive cancellation and produce a third season thanks to an unprecedented arrangement with Netflix. However, it’s slight ratings increase season over season begs a question as to whether that was worth it.

The next series to keep an eye on for a potential Netflix bump is “New Girl,” the Fox comedy that steered its two previous seasons to the streaming service over the summer. The fall may be too soon to see if Netflix can really push this Zooey Deschanel half-hour to the next level, but in the brutal world of keeping broadcast content viable enough to realize the syndication paydays crucial to maintaining studio economics, Netflix could be a godsend.

Unless the “Breaking Bad” boom is a one-off. As “The Killing” demonstrated, Netflix isn’t exactly the graveyard in Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary,” resuscitating anything you plant in its ground. But “Breaking Bad” may not be the only property that could respond amazingly to kind of algorithmic magic Netflix professes to work on its catalog; perhaps there’s just a lot of content in its library similar to drug-dealing high-school teachers with cancer.

It will be interesting to see how Netflix conducts itself at the negotiation table the next time a TV network comes hat in hand with a new series in need of SVOD love.  Reed Hastings pays top dollar to secure exclusivity for select series. But given what Netflix just demonstrated with “Breaking Bad” and the increasing independence the company gets from a blossoming original slate that began with “House of Cards,” the  value exchange is starting to change. Who gets more out of these deals, the studio or Netflix?

Maybe the studio should be paying Netflix instead of the other way around given you could argue that the studio gets more marketing muscle than the streaming service gets from the content addition. Yes, Netflix is not the only game in town, but neither Amazon nor Hulu have demonstrated their backstopping powers yet.

Heed the words of Walter White on Sunday night, Hollywood; “tread lightly” at the negotiation table.

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  1. Karen W. says:

    Anyone who doubts Netflix paid a significant role in the huge Breaking Bad ratings bounce is a fool.

    Every single person I know who watches and loves BB caught up with it on Netflix and jumped on the BB bandwagon. Some sooner than others.

    I binged watched all of Seasons 1-3 before starting to watch Season 4 on AMC and the only reason I even gave BB a chance was because it was on Netflix and it was the summer and nothing was on.

    The reason The Killing didn’t get the bump BB did is because it isn’t a very good show.

  2. milo says:

    So far only the first season of New Girl is on Netflix streaming.

  3. Trix says:

    Before Penske, the above would be a “joke.” Now, it’s an “article.” There’s no data, no science, no proof – just Variety’s tunnel-vision promotion of Netflix. It’s a crazy time when *Variety* is crediting the success of one of the most critically-acclaimed shows on TV on its syndication, rather than the work of BB’s writers, actors, production team and network.

    Perhaps the author should consider what happens to Netflix without outside content, rather than what happens to Breaking Bad without Netflix. How about we explore how that negotation table looks?

    • derek says:

      Trix maybe I’m just a statistic but we just got started in Breaking Bad on Netflix, and I just found and got caught up on The Walking Dead also on Netflix. If it weren’t for Netflix I wouldn’t have gotten interested in either show. Giving people what they want is a big deal. If I could stream an individual show from AMC (even if it had ads to support the streaming and creation of the show) I would. Plus, I wouldn’t need my cable provider for anything besides an internet connection. The only reason I have cable still connected is so that I can watch my local hockey team, which does not have any OTA broadcasts. If the NHL ever wises up to the fact that fans are willing to pay to stream the game live, my cable operator goes away and becomes an internet provider only. There is plenty of data to support the claims in the above article. It’s no joke and cable operators are scared to death. Obviously their scare tactics worked on you. I am willing to watch advertisements or pay for content I enjoy, but I do not like at all paying for 100 additional channels that never ever get watched, in order to get the 5 channels I do want to watch.

  4. Buzz Killington says:

    I can attest to this – I had heard people talk about it for years, but I hate jumping into series 2-3 years in. I have slowly been going through it on Netflix and am a huge fan now. Ultimately I probably will see the final season a year or 2 from now, but it’s been amazing. To catch all the episodes in a row on cable is very difficult even with a dvr.

  5. Barry Hall says:

    Friends had tried for years to get me to watch Breaking Bad, but I avoided it, just because I didn’t think I would like it. Then, in July AMC began replaying the entire series with five episodes each Friday, culminating in a 13-hour long Season Four marathon on Friday (Aug 9) and part one of Season Five on Sunday, so I was able to see every episode over five or six weeks and be ready for “the beginning of the end” on Sunday night (Aug 11).

    I’m sure Netflix helped some become familiar with this show, but for me, it was due to the network (AMC) choosing to show the previous seasons again. Well, that…and a DVR with LOTS of space.

  6. Arthur Greenwald says:

    If Netflix availability can deliver a live ratings bump to a given series, that’s a nice bonus for both Netflix an the program producer. But how does that translates to networks or studios paying for the privilege of Netflix carriage? For most off-network shows, Netflix shoulders none of the original development or promotion costs that created the original demand. Yes, Netflix pays license fees and provides “shelf space,” but Netflix algorhythms don’t promote particular programs, unless those shows happen to match previous viewer choices.

  7. boojay says:

    How in the world does a mediocre show like The Walking Dead double the viewership of a quality one like Breaking Bad? I get it, zombies are cool, but c’mon…..

  8. Helen says:

    My understanding was this Netflix deal was only with UK and Ireland. I don’t see last nights Breaking Bad on my netflix. Just wrong country I guess.

    • simon moreau says:

      You’re confused. They’re not talking about last night’s BB being on Netflix. They’re talking about Netflix bringing in new real-time viewers to AMC.

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