The Return of Must See TV?

Observations September 30, 2013 11:32 am

Last night, I was glued to my television, watching the finale of Breaking Bad. At roughly 10:15pm I turned to a friend and asked, ‘what next?’ As I mulled over the fact that the show was in fact really over, it dawned on me– this is the first series I’ve ever seen through to completion, in real-time. Every other series I’ve loved and watched every episode of- whether it be Sex & The City, Gilmore GirlsSeinfeldGossip Girl, or Arrested Development,* I haven’t watched the ending live. I’ve relied on DVD box sets and television reruns to patch together series, but it hasn’t been until recently, with the addition of Netflix and other streaming services, that I’ve had the ability to watch an old or current series to completion. Series like Gilmore Girls and Sex & The City ended before Netflix offered streaming-only options (and are still yet to be available on the streaming plan)– for the average consumer, it was too expensive/too much of a hassle to ‘catch-up’ by buying all the DVDs.  But now, instead of having to have been a fan of a show from episode 1, or buy pricy physical DVDs to catch up, Internet services have provided fans with a way to catch up on shows on their own schedule– and with TV shows that are still currently on-air, this provides viewers with greater ability and incentive to stay current.

And it’s this digital binge-viewing that enabled me to see the live finale of Breaking Bad. I started the series late, so I relied on Netflix and iTunes to catch up on the first three seasons so I could watch the final seasons live. The streaming/download options for the show made it ‘must-see’ TV— binge viewing multiple episodes at once only made me more eager to watch more to catch up to the current season and experience the show live (and all the hype that comes with it, especially on social media). And given the ratings for the final season, I feel confident in saying that I’m not the only person with this ‘binge-viewing-to-watch-live-strategy’– the series finale drew a whopping 10.3 million viewers; in 2010, the final episode of season 3 only garnered 1.56 million viewers.

Vince Gilligan has been very vocal about the positive effect Netflix and ‘binge viewing’ had on Breaking Bad’s viewership:

I am grateful as hell for binge-watching. I am grateful that AMC and Sony took a gamble on us in the first place to put us on the air. But I’m just as grateful for an entirely different company that I have no stake in whatsoever: Netflix. I don’t think you’d be sitting here interviewing me if it weren’t for Netflix. In its third season, Breaking Bad got this amazing nitrous-oxide boost of energy and general public awareness because of Netflix. Before binge-watching, someone who identified him- or herself as a fan of a show probably only saw 25 percent of the episodes.

Breaking Bad has shown that online streaming services can work in tandem with live TV. It’s time for networks to stop being so proprietary and limiting with their streaming options– I won’t rehash it, but Kevin Spacey gave an excellent speech about the future of television and the benefit of providing legal streaming options vs. gating access to shows. It’s the reason why I’ll probably never start Homeland or finish Girls, but also why I’ll be able to tune in for the series finale of How I Met Your Mother. The easier content is to find– in a way that benefits both viewer and network– the greater potential to create a hit show.


*yes, I have horrible taste in television. And I’m ok with that.

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