Was ‘Breaking Bad’ Really a Financial Hit?

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For all the hype surrounding “Breaking Bad’s final season—and especially last night’s finale—the show’s ratings were not only considerably lower than those of many other cable shows, but represented only a fraction of top-ranked network fare.

The finale drew an estimated 10.3 million viewers. Despite blanket news media coverage, media appearances by cast members, and social media being overrun with Heisenberg talk, the finale just barely match the *average* of AMC’s biggest hit, “The Walking Dead.” The zombie-fest drew between 9 million and 11 million viewers on average last season—higher than any drama on television, including on the broadcast networks. According to Advertising Age, the average cost of a 30-second spot on “The Walking Dead” last season was between $200,000 and $250,000, with last-minute buys reaching as high as $375,000.

The “Breaking Bad” finale drew a reported $250,000 for each 30-second spot. Last season, before the hype began to crest, ads were going for an average of just $56,000. The show was unquestionably a huge success for AMC, but perhaps more for its cultural currency than its actual currency (though the fact that more than half of the show’s viewers were in the all-important 18-49 age demo didn’t hurt). Together with “The Walking Dead,” and “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” helped AMC become an advertising powerhouse: the network’s ad revenues leaped by 14% last quarter, to $147 million. Walter White may be dead, but the undead hordes of “The Walking Dead,” and the spiritually dead ad men of “Mad Men,” will help AMC get over the loss. “Mad Men” has only one season left.

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Elsewhere on cable, Duck Dynasty—a hugely successful show about a family that makes duck calls—drew 9.6 million viewers for its season finale. “The Bible,” on The History Channel, drew an average 11.3 million viewers, though many of them outside of the 18-49 “dollar demo.”

The numbers add to the continuing story of media fragmentation. The last comparable television event signoff was probably the series finale of “Friends” in 2004. It drew 52 million viewers. The “Seinfeld” finale, in 1998, drew 76 million—and toward the end of its run was commanding more than half a million dollars for a 30-second spot. Fifteen years before that, the finale episode of “M*A*S*H” drew a still-record-holding 126 million. The show was watched in more than 60% of U.S. households. And money-wise, the difference between 1983 and today is even more mind-boggling. A half-minute commercial on the M*A*S*H finale cost $450,000. That’s the equivalent of more than $1 million today.

Gone are the days when anything on TV can ever persuade three-fifths of the entire population to tune in. The broadcast networks are still on top in terms of viewers — shows like NBC‘s “The Voice” and CBS’s “Big Bang Theory” still draw more than 14 million viewers every week on average. But with more attention—and money—going to cable networks (and Internet outfits like Netflix), those numbers will continue to fall. It’s been estimated that by 2017, nearly 100% of the country will be receiving pay TV (it’s at about 80% now.) At that point the difference, from the perspective of viewers, between the broadcasters and the cable networks will have been essentially erased. And a show comparable to “Breaking Bad,” drawing 5 million or 7 million viewers won’t be seen as merely decent—it will be an enormous success.

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