The Empire Business

How Breaking Bad made television permanent

By Zosha Millman

A calm, desert pastoral; pants billowing through the air; an RV careening through the peace. Before this it was tranquil, all vivid tones and brassy earth. After — as the eerie strings and the ghostly khakis suggest — it never will be. As the trousers land in the dirt, the RV unceremoniously grinds it into the dust, taking the curve at far too dangerous a speed. Almost immediately we understand: this is the wild West, and there’s nothing good to be found here. 

This is the moment that Breaking Bad begins, but this is also the moment that Breaking Bad, cultural icon, started sinking its hooks into the imaginations of viewers. The entire sequence demands answers, demands attention, demands more — an anticipation only coiled further throughout Breaking Bad’s pilot. 

It’s no surprise that upon viewing it an executive of AMC said “if you added 20 minutes to this you have the best independent film of the year.” The pilot itself told viewers all they needed to know, about Walter White, his dire straits, his brutish pride, and the lengths he’ll go to in order to “protect” his family from even a whiff of harm. The show would continue to twist the rack further and further for five more seasons. 

Television had long been in a battle for legitimacy — what little it had carved out as a medium could mostly be the work of HBO, a premium network who eschewed TV with its infamous slogan, “It’s not TV, It’s HBO.” There seemed to be a gulf between the increasingly morally ambiguous plotlines on HBO and the rest of television fare. 

Then AMC released Mad Men. The show was developed specifically because the network was tilting at the prestige of HBO, kicked off by AMC CEO Josh Sapan charging into his executives’ office and issuing a directive: “We need a Sopranos.” Fueled by the business interests of AMC’s brass, the show didn’t have to worry about old network standards like ratings. It was free to be as novel and novelistic as it pleased. As such, it could be held up as an example of television’s inherent creative good; where The Sopranos set the precedent, Mad Men cemented it — and, notably, did so without the market exclusivity that HBO provided for its viewers. 

When Breaking Bad launched it was against semi-improbable odds: given the green light shortly before Mad Men would premiere, hitting the airwaves just one year later, it was always going to determine the tone of AMC as a network. But it would be met with an uphill battle to get anyone to watch the damn thing, despite glowing reviews from critics. This put Breaking Bad in a similar boat to Mad Men, as a critical darling, and a ratings squeaker. 

But ultimately, Breaking Bad would wind up with a key element in its corner: Netflix, and the advent of the streaming library. The show had been created well before audiences had ever put much solace in an online library of shows they could access at any point. But the show quickly became the hallmark for what the internet could do for a show. Through a single savvy partnership, AMC would change the history and trajectory of television with Breaking Bad, and help solidify the streaming revolution. 

"Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change: Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation."

Walter White, "Pilot"

The study of matter

Walter White in Breaking Bad's pilot episode. Courtesy of AMC

Breaking Bad would come to be known as a show ahead of its time, but when it started out it was very much rooted in the moment. Walter White (played with terrifying ferocity laced in his bones by Bryan Cranston) was a chemistry teacher who resorted to selling meth in order to help off-set the financial burdens his cancer diagnosis would bring to his family. It was a fun house mirror of some of the bigger problems of the time in the U.S. — racked by tumbling financials, thanks to the newly minted Great Recession, and an opioid addiction rate at four times what it had been almost a decade prior.

Its currentness is one of the things that had attracted AMC to it. Before Breaking Bad, AMC was a network known for period pieces, with shows like Broken Trails, a Western mini-series, and Mad Men, about 1960s ad men in New York. Both programs built on the legacy that HBO had carved out with their original programming: the anti-hero.

Defined as “the protagonist you didn’t want to root for,” the anti-hero archetype wasn’t new to TV — you could trace him (and he was almost always a him) back to Dallas’ conniving J.R. Ewing, if not earlier. But in the 2000s, the anti-hero flourished. It allowed for darker plotlines, more morally-ambiguous character choices, all while tapping into and toying with an audience’s conception of a “hero.” Perhaps most importantly, it made television feel more cinematic; Vince Gilligan’s oft-repeated pitch for the show was always: “I’m going to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface.” And so, unsurprisingly, Breaking Bad falls in line with the shows of the era — Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and Walter White all shared a newfound sensibility for a television leading man, one in which he could be violent, unlikable, and even evil.

But in the same way that Mad Men’s narrative ambiguity invited viewers back again and again, Breaking Bad’s propulsiveness towards Walt’s evil nature is baked right in from the start. Within the pilot we see the conflict in the bounds a single man: the first time we get to see Walt with a glimmer in his eyes, he’s teaching. But the first time we see him as truly resilient, even ferocious, is those opening moments in the desert. He may have just recorded a panicked final statement to his family, but he stands strong against the coming sirens, as he pulls the gun out from his tighty whities. Is this his duality? Is it his duplicity? Perhaps both these sides were Walter White — were always Walter White. Wrapped up within the 58-minute episode is the DNA for everything Breaking Bad would come to be. If only AMC could get viewers to see it.

The launch would be something of a comedy of errors: Though AMC was enjoying a relatively empty field of competitors after all the acclaim Mad Men had won them, the premiere was scheduled on the night of the NFC championship game. There was, theoretically, plenty of time for the game to end before the start of the show. But New York Giant Lawrence Tynes hooked a 36-yarder left, and forced the climactic game into overtime, and Breaking Bad’s pilot got its debut stepped on.

At the time, ratings were pretty much the only metric networks had to translate content into profit. Although many argued that they didn’t capture the full impact of a show, it was a quantifiable way for networks to sell the show — meaning it impacted the ad revenue (and by proxy, the budget and cancellation probability) of a show. Given that it was new to the original programming game, AMC generally allowed its shows a fairly long leash for what constituted a “bad” rating. Breaking Bad’s pilot would ultimately be considered a “solid” premiere; in the ever dwindling pool of viewers a network could hope to pull, Bad had managed 1.4 million. The second half hour (post game) would see a boost in viewers, and a re-airing would score improvements in key demos over the 8 p.m. slot. But it was still beneath other TV movies and broadcasts airing that night (the NFC game would score some 54 million viewers). All in all, promising, but not a knockout.

This became a blessing and a curse for Breaking Bad: with such a small viewer pool, the show became one of the riskiest on television, constantly attempting bigger and bigger splashes of ingenuity. Everything about the show was deliberate, from the stark cinematography of the New Mexico landscape to the expressive lighting. Time slowed and advanced to serve the story. The camera was as much our lens into the plot as it was its own perspective, frequently put on top of tools for shots that would’ve been kitschy if they weren’t so affecting.

Video essay on the cinematography of Breaking Bad during its run. Courtesy of The Ringer.

Still, the show made only marginal growth in viewers. Peaks at season premieres and finales would be met with a drop-off in the middle of the season — sometimes by more than a third of the audience. This wasn’t necessarily unusual (shows often see a bathtub curve between a season’s opening and closing, just by sake of viewer demand), but it was far from the audience magnet AMC was hoping for with its sophomore show.

By 2010, it became clear that season three of Breaking Bad was underperforming. Sure, it was scoring great reviews, and still averaged about 1.5 million viewers per episode. AMC might’ve settled for the same level of prestige that Mad Men had brought them by its third season. But shy of that, they were in danger of becoming a one-hit wonder. With three years at bat, Breaking Bad had arguably taken bigger swings than most shows in its shoes. It took the anti-hero formula and deliberately complicated it, drawing Walt into a deeper web of violence so his children might never have a life touched by it. In the puzzle of the continuum of television’s quality, Bad was a jagged piece that couldn’t be smoothed down.

For a brief moment AMC was going to cancel it all, until Sony and Gilligan quickly found FX would take them on for two more seasons, and the network recanted. But Breaking Bad couldn’t rest easy until it had something else working to its advantage.

The study of change

Breaking Bad, where many recognize it: at the top of their Netflix queue. Courtesy of Imgur

Television at the time was finally starting to feel more permanent. It had only been relatively recently that the market had shifted towards meeting their viewership where they were, on the audience’s terms as opposed to the network’s.

It hadn’t happened easily — cable channels rose and loosened the vice grip the “big three” networks had on ratings — but eventually creatives were freed up to expect more of their audience. More specificity in storytelling, more attention paid to the screen, more narrative complexity in their plotting. Then in 1976 came VHS. It was a tool that would beat rival Betamax for two primary reasons: its affordability, and the capacity to record more.

VHS was one of the first tastes that the public got of content on their schedule — owning a recording of Jane Fonda’s workout tape meant exercise was suddenly on your own timetable. Video stores where you could rent a movie meant you didn’t have work on the demands of the local megaplex or stay up until 2:30 in the morning to watch a flick. Slowly, viewers adapted to the new world order: You no longer needed to be home or awake to catch your favorites. The ability to keep up with their dearest shows more closely meant creators could do more narratively involved plotlines, and viewers could expect to be able to follow more shows. And just like movies that flopped at the box office were able to find new life through the home video market, shows that failed to reach the goal of syndication were suddenly granted new life (or, at the very least, new access) among VHS copies, even bootleg ones.

“To some extent, the VCR did shift personal time — a few hours, over a few days or months,” Ian Bogost wrote in an elegy for the VCR in 2016. “But in so doing, the device also created new, shared time between people: It increased the circle of viewers for broadcast programs, constructed the culture of home-video browsing and viewing, and made the long-term collection of bought and recorded videos possible.”

Coupled with the expanding realm of cable channels, audience choice (or, from the network’s perspective, fragmentation) was unstoppable. Technology seemed to only barely keep pace with the demand; after VHS tapes came DVDs, and TV shows made up 10% of all sales in the DVD market by 2005. Shows of the era — 24, Lost, Veronica Mars, House — responded, with intricate plots that all rewarded repeat viewings. On-demand channels let viewers tune in later. DVR let you record at the push of a button. And they both let you watch without the commercials that made TV profitable. Appointment television was now guided by the viewer’s demand.

Into this market, Netflix would be born. What started as a simple question between friends (could a DVD survive being mailed?) grew to destabilize, and ultimately bring down, the video stores where neighborhoods went to rent. With a relatively simple format, consumers quickly grew comfortable with a process largely out of their hands as long as they had more control over what they could watch.

Armed with DVDs, users pioneered the casual TV marathon. It was once a special thing — perhaps you dipped into the New Year’s Eve 24-hour showing of The Twilight Zone, or filled a free Saturday by gorging on America’s Next Top Model. Either way, you were often only watching because the SciFi channel or Lifetime had an odd programming block to fill. But with Netflix’s rapid feed of DVDs, you could blow through a show at your own pace, without worrying about much more than the monthly price. If you timed it just right, you never had to go a night without a DVD full of fresh episodes.

And by the end of the 2000s, the service expanded its domain even further. They put a nascent streaming service in place in the mid-2000s, when data speeds and bandwidths had improved enough to sufficiently allow for it (and DVD sales were dropping). At the time of their launch, the Netflix online streaming service had 1,000 films, and an arduous time getting anyone to take it seriously. But given that Netflix helped keep viewers flush with TV on DVD, they were uniquely situated to see what many others were not: television’s long-form storytelling was perfect to keep hooking in customers eager for their next chapter, their next fix.

So, the company started methodically — making deals with whomever they could to license various back catalogues and build up their streaming library. Netflix struck just such a deal with AMC, finally nabbing the big fish, and ultimately shaping their own future:

"Mad Men has been and continues to be a representation of TV at its best and Netflix is proud to be the syndication home for this acclaimed series," Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said in a statement at the time. "This deal secures long-term instant access to an iconic show for Netflix members for years to come.”

Indeed, though the deal would ultimately become famous for securing the legacy of Breaking Bad (not to mention the platform itself), that show was just a footnote in the initial announcement. It was just one year after AMC had nearly cancelled the show, and Bad was playing second fiddle to Mad Men; in some write-ups, Breaking Bad’s induction to Netflix’s streaming platform was omitted entirely.

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Walter White's empire blowing up TV as we know it. Courtesy of AMC

Though Netflix may now seem like an inevitability of a TV landscape that had long been shifting towards more directly catering to the desires and schedules of its viewers, it’s easy to forget that without the right hook the platform might’ve faded into obscurity.

Breaking Bad was a show built with that hook, for just such a library. The show’s narrative was propulsive and demanding, rewarding viewers who followed the cinematic eye of the whole thing. Episodes typically end with a dangling modifier, leaving Walt’s world constantly slightly askew.

Unsurprisingly, the Netflix audience responded. Before too long, Breaking Bad became the face of the newly-dubbed “bingers,” who would plow through whole seasons of TV in an afternoon. An intense and addictive show like Breaking Bad, with all its momentum, leant itself naturally to such a practice; the whole first season takes place over the timeline of what could be a marathon viewing, just a matter of days.

When the first three seasons hit Netflix in September 2011 the show was about to conclude its fourth season, boasting an audience of just under two million for each episode. Ten months later, the fifth season premiered to three million — potentially a typical early-season high, as the show was used to. Only a year after that the back-half of the final season premiered to nearly six million, with 10 million tuning in to watch the series finale live.

That helped Breaking Bad become the test case for the newly-coined “Netflix effect,” an example of what could happen with well-negotiated, symbiotic arrangement where cable shows would see a jump in ratings after heading to the streaming platform. Netflix is notoriously cagey about hard statistics, but they did announce 50,000 of their subscribers watched all 13 episodes of Breaking Bad season four in the day before season five aired. Vince Gilligan himself profusely thanked Netflix during awards season, crediting them with keeping the show going:

I think Netflix kept us on the air. Not only are we standing up here (with the Emmy), I don’t think our show would have even lasted beyond season two. … It’s a new era in television, and we’ve been very fortunate to reap the benefits. 

This sort of acknowledgement gave Netflix not just swagger but power — they saw the writing on the wall about the future of TV, and they were able to get out ahead of it. By the time their original content hit the platform, it followed a newly gained legitimacy thanks for Bad.

Everything about Netflix’s strategy seemed intent on building off of what they’d learned from years of audiences bingeing other network’s shows on their service, flouting the established rules of television: they dropped shows in traditional off-periods, like Fridays or holiday seasons; their programs went deeper and darker than most shows; they dropped all the episodes at once, leaning into the binge-method its audiences seem to favor.

Thanks to the “Netflix effect,” audiences were more conditioned to turn to the internet to find their next television show. Once a strategy for only the diehards, a single streaming service had now pushed not just a library but its own evolution forward. It’s a step that would be increasingly echoed by other streaming platforms — Hulu, with East Los High, and Amazon, with Betas. But none were able to quite confidently hit the market in the same way that Netflix was, because they had no show like Breaking Bad. By borrowing the legitimacy and urgency of AMC’s programming, Netflix built up a streaming empire, and with it, a whole new landscape of TV.*

No more half measures

Thanks to Breaking Bad’s legacy, more shows than ever are heading to the internet. That means more and more viewers are finding their shows at the touch of their fingers, whenever they want. That also means that the same ratings that once endangered the future of Bad are…confusing. With so many ways to watch, traditional “ratings” mean less than ever. In fact, the pressure to directly (and, largely, solely) acquire ratings is no longer resting on television creators. So how are companies gauging the “value” of a show? That depends on who you ask. 

Some providers are using streaming shows to sell other things; for instance, Apple and Amazon both offer streaming as a yet another bait on the line for extended services (Apple electronics, or the online retail world of Amazon Prime). Outlets like Netflix and Hulu hope to rope in subscribers for their sites, but for Hulu — along with Quibi — those costs may be offset by ads as well.

The true “value” of a show often seems to be what people will pay for it: Netflix is on track to spend $17 billion in content for 2020 — a figure they’re unlikely to make back, especially as their numbers continue to balloon and they still have about $14.6 billion in long-term debt on the books. 

And as Amanda Lotz notes, it’s not as easy to define the value of programming in the same way we could for a show in the 2000s, when “really well-reasoned decisions could be made about whether or not a show would make money,” based on how it would be sold, and in how many markets. It’s no longer as simple as math based on viewership, ad revenue, and syndication probabilities. 

“[House of Cards] was just as valuable to Netflix as part of an accumulating push to subscribe even if it didn’t drive immediate subscription or viewing,” Lotz writes in We Now Disrupt this Broadcast. “Did it matter how many viewed it in the days, weeks, or months immediately following its release? How do we assess the value of a show that becomes part of a library in perpetuity?”

With the lack of equivalency between production and profit — coupled with a tech-company opaqueness around actual numbers — many services have adopted a customer-focused brand identity. They strive to set themselves apart from the increasingly massive streaming horde by meeting the customer where they are: Netflix hopes to be the “something for everyone” service; Disney+ skews younger, casting off mature properties to Hulu.  

But strategies like this are still in development; no one knows for sure what will work best. As television increasingly heads online, most are just trying to stay afloat and get however much of the pot they can.  

Perhaps Netflix’s rise was always going to be a slow-build to the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut they have now become. But if the modern streaming era has taught us anything, it’s that any given platform is only one water-cooler show away from legitimacy: The Mandalorian smoothed ruffled feathers about Disney+’s monopolistic tendencies. Hulu was always a TV hotspot but never quite a player until The Handmaid’s Tale lent some priority to the site. Amazon scored a major hit once things like Fleabag or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel started attracting attention.

But the fact that Breaking Bad provided enough cache to float Netflix until their original programming solidified has proved to be an invaluable head start. Now the Netflix effect becomes less of a viewer bump and more of a clientele waiting to see when it hit the platform — shows like You, which become its own phenomenon when the program dropped on Netflix shortly after being cancelled by Lifetime, even get swallowed up and become Netflix originals.

Perhaps there’s no greater indication of the power that Netflix commands than the return of Breaking Bad, with the October 2019 release of El Camino. The film starts immediately after the events of the series, picking up with Jesse Pinkman, whose tragic descent as the partner of Walter White was always played with the absolute care by Aaron Paul.

But El Camino also continues bridging the gap between “traditional” television methods and the new streaming age. Upon its release it could be found on AMC, and also where many viewers originally discovered Breaking Bad — at the top of their Netflix page. And the Netflix effect is now flowing both ways: according to company’s vice president of original content Cindy Holland, since the news of the movie broke in August, viewership of Breaking Bad on the streaming service is up, with both rewatchers and newcomers coming to the series.

For AMC’s part Breaking Bad would secure what they hoped the program would achieve: continued critical legitimacy, and finally a major ratings pull. Thanks to their licensing deals with Netflix getting viewers hooked, AMC was able to up what they charge in fees to distributors by 50% between 2007 and 2013 — or, when Mad Men premiered and when Breaking Bad ended. That the network was able to charge nearly the same amount for a 30-second ad spot during the finale as advertisers would pay during Monday Night Football didn’t hurt either.