AMC's patience with the meth kingpin drama can serve as a blueprint for other networks
With “Breaking Bad’s” final episode set to air Sunday, consumers and the industry alike are busily discussing the show’s impact on television. The AMC drama has overcome numerous hurdles during its five year run on the net, whether it be production derailment due to the writers’ strike, or more-than-soft ratings during its debut.
Nevertheless, “Breaking Bad” now ranks among the great dramas of television, surrounded by the likes of “The Sopranos,” “NYPD Blue” and “The Wire.” Showbiz could learn a few lessons from the series, especially given its prominence in the digital space. Here are seven:
1. Patience is more than just a virtue
“Breaking Bad” wasn’t always a pop culture phenomenon that broke ratings records for AMC. In fact, the first four seasons of the Vince Gilligan drama — running from 2008 to 2011 — rarely cracked 2 million live viewers. Buoyed by digital syndication, “Breaking Bad’s” word-of-mouth buzz snowballed in 2012 as auds discovered the Bryan Cranston-starrer on Netflix, caught up on the series and began tuning to the Sunday night telecasts. These bandwagon fans have in turn helped the show break the 6.6 million viewer mark, with record highs for the show expected Sunday. “Breaking Bad’s” growth is exponential, as the show boasts four times the viewership it did two years ago. Other net execs, who may be trigger-happy when it comes to cancelling low-rated yet high-quality programs, would be well-served offering their young series not only patience, but faith — a modest performer one season could become your breakout hit the next.
2. Netflix is your friend, not your enemy
Dovetailing off the “patience” lesson, “Breaking Bad” is the first resounding success of a digital syndication model, and one that helped bring the phrase “binge-viewing” into households across America. While TV networks have long treated the streaming service as a competitor for viewers, AMC witnessed a different result when it licensed previous seasons of “Breaking Bad” to Netflix: Subscribers were able to discover or catch up on the series, and encourage friends and fellow subs to do the same. The numbers at times were staggering: Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos disclosed that when Netflix released the 13-episode fourth season of “Breaking Bad” the day before the season five premiere, 50,000 subscribers binge-viewed all 13 episodes in one day. When Gilligan took home the best drama series Emmy this year, he praised Netflix for its role in keeping the series afloat for all of these years and building its on-air viewership.
3. Edge does not necessitate gore
With the recent roll out of Fox’s “The Following” and NBC’s “Hannibal,” networks have brought edgy, bloody programming to small screens across America as they try to compete with the likes of zombie drama “The Walking Dead” and the graphic brutality on “Sons of Anarchy.” However, “Breaking Bad” is proof that an edgy show does not require gore to drive home uncomfortable emotion. While “Breaking Bad” does not shy away when it comes to violence — death, after all, abounds — the graphic nature of the show is in no ways gratuitous, and at times even restrained. During the “Ozymandias” episode, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was dragged away by a neo-Nazi gang that had plans to force information out of him. The actual interrogation of Pinkman, however, was not shown. Instead, viewers witness the aftermath — an exhausted, bloodied Pinkman sitting in a pit, his face swollen with lacerations. The thought of “what could have happened” to Pinkman in the end was far more emotionally gripping than a gory depiction of the torture session, as auds minds’ were allowed to wander into their own versions of hell.
4. Think beyond the pilot
Both Gilligan and Cranston will tell you that the pilot script for “Breaking Bad” could never alone hint at the future of Walter White. While the pilot followed a meek, financially strapped chemistry teacher and family man diagnosed with cancer, Gilligan’s vision for “Breaking Bad” defied the dozens of pages of the show’s first sample of writing — he wanted to create a character that morphed into someone completely different over the arc of the series, something that would take hundreds upon hundreds of pages to accomplish. This vision beyond the pilot script brings ambition to a project that the typical pilot strategy does not accommodate, where writers are forced to cram character traits and trajectories into a single script for networks to mull over. Though “Breaking Bad” eventually created one of the most iconic antiheroes in TV history, the pilot script hinted at none of this. In the same vein as that old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover,” perhaps it’s time to stop judging the potential of a show by the pilot script alone.
5. Be flexible with a character’s trajectory
Famously, Gilligan did not plan for Jesse to survive season one. Gilligan also said that he imagined Hank serving a “limited function” until actor Dean Norris “elevated” the character. Saul (Bob Odenkirk) didn’t even arrive until season two, yet he spawned a spinoff series. Thanks to solid casting and nimble writing, the trio grew to be fan faves. Similarly, Nicholas Brody on Showtime’s “Homeland” and Peter Russo on “House of Cards” had far more limited trajectories initially planned for them. Flexibility with a character’s future, paired with impeccable casting, can transform a role from recurring to essential. It also didn’t hurt that in Walter White, “Breaking Bad” gave us a lead character we had never seen before.
6. A popular show does not beget a strong lead-in
Unfortunately for “Low Winter Sun,” having a ratings giant precede a show does not promise audience rollover. The Detroit-set frosh series is seeing a drop off of over 4 million viewers per seg in the 10 p.m. timeslot compared to “Breaking Bad,” and its live viewership declined as “Breaking Bad” — its 9 p.m. lead-in — grew. There are several potential reasons for this, including “Low Winter Sun’s” tonal issues, but one idea that won’t seem to fade is that viewers aren’t ready to watch much of anything after the emotionally draining episodes of “Breaking Bad’s” final season. Sometimes, just one heartache is all a viewer can tolerate in primetime. (Of course, one could argue that “Low Winter Sun” is a hit in waiting, the same way “Breaking Bad” was, but that might be optimistic.)
7. With a great show, less is not more — more is more.
Though some might say AMC is milking “Breaking Bad” for all it’s worth, the split-finale strategy for the series has not only extended the gratification for diehard fans, but also allowed new ones to join the party and spike live ratings during its final segs. AMC has also extended the final episodes of “Breaking Bad” to 75 minutes, and — let’s be honest — no one is complaining. When it comes to a truly compelling show, more is definitely more, as auds eagerly lap up every scene. There is no shame in AMC’s milking game, and fans are benefiting from it greatly — a win-win for all involved. AMC seems to have already taken this lesson to heart by employing the same strategy for the final episodes of “Mad Men” in 2014 and 2015.