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Netflix Flexes New Muscle with ‘Breaking Bad’ Ratings Boom

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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