Breaking Bad and the future of scripted linear television

Of the many cable series that have attracted tremendous critical acclaim and popularity in recent years, there is one in particular that seems to be reaching its zenith in popular culture in its final year, one that has certainly received its share of critical acclaim but isn’t even the biggest critical darling (or, arguably, most popular show) on its own network. That show is Breaking Bad.

Grantland’s Bill Simmons describes how Breaking Bad airing its last few episodes head-to-head with Sunday Night Football over the next few weeks is forcing him to make the sort of decision that seemed to have been left behind in the pre-DVR era:

Back then, most people couldn’t record two shows at the same time, and you didn’t have to worry about an unexpected moment being spoiled on Twitter…So you simply recorded The Wire and watched the game live. And that became the habit on Sunday nights, at least for me — record the good Sunday-night show (Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Dexter, whatever), avoid it until the football game finished, then throw that episode down like television dessert…[But] this final season of Breaking Bad changed the rules…It’s the greatest final season of any television show. At least so far. Two different times this season (including last week), the show ended in such an electric way that I didn’t even know what to do with myself. After last Sunday’s episode, I somehow ended up in my backyard — I don’t even know how I got there. And there are three episodes left!…For the first time, I find myself choosing an already-filmed, can-watch-it-whenever-I-want television show over live football.

At a time when DVRs and online streaming threaten to make the traditional linear broadcast schedule obsolete for scripted shows, is Breaking Bad a glimpse into the future, a preview for how a scripted show on a linear television network can be so compelling as to pull a sports fan away from the almighty NFL? Outlining how Breaking Bad got to this point, Slate’s Willa Paskin describes an aggressively modern, yet potentially soon to be normal, rise to prominence, and identifies in Breaking Bad the qualities that can allow a scripted show to survive on linear television:

The ratings success of Breaking Bad shows that excellent programming can grow an audience, a big audience, if treated with proper patience…Breaking Bad is also, perhaps, proof of what a really propulsive plot can get you. Mad Men was media-friendly and stylistically aspirational from the very start, but it does not have the same What happens next?! vibe as Breaking Bad, and its slower-growing audience reflects that. Don Draper looks great and deep, but there is still nothing like a cliffhanger to make sure an audience checks in at the appointed time.

Once you’ve had a shot of a show like Breaking Bad, in other words, it’s like crack (or, perhaps more appropriately, meth): it keeps you coming back every week to find out how the story unfolds next. Social media reinforces this process and forces someone like Simmons to tune in at the appointed time, not a second later, lest spoilers litter the feed. HBO understands this well, which is why so many of its most popular and talked-about shows, like Game of Thrones and True Blood, are heavily serialized.

But while such shows can ensure that no one who starts watching will dare to stop, it can also make it difficult for any potential new viewers to join in, lost in the thicket of continuity built up over the seasons. This helps explain why broadcast networks have typically been reticent to air serialized shows in primetime. Instrumental in the slow growth in Breaking Bad‘s audience and AMC’s willingness to wait for that audience to build, Paskin notes, was the ability to catch up on past episodes on Netflix; even if the show premiered with middling numbers, any new viewer could watch all the previous episodes and be as up to speed as someone there from the beginning. (Webcomic aficianados may recognize this as the archive binge.)

If and when the day ever comes that a scripted show can just as easily be released over the Internet as over a traditional linear television channel – and that day may be fast approaching, given Netflix’s own investment in original series – there will need to be a good reason for it to be tied down to a slot on a linear television channel, a reason that can compel millions of people to tune in at one particular time, as opposed to watching at their leisure. Ironically, the best bet for compelling such behavior is another aggressively modern technology, social media, and the desire to engage with the discussion about the show on social media or simply avoid the spoilers that discussion inevitably contains.

In other words, the most important property that the TV show of the future can have is the modern equivalent of “water cooler value”, and that value is amplified when people are so engaged with the content they have to see “what happens next” as it happens. As I explained four years ago, the latter is best served with serialized installments doled out slowly on a regular basis to build anticipation for what comes next, which Paskin suggests belies Netflix’s own strategy of releasing entire seasons of its own original series at once. If it becomes harder for a scripted series to justify its place on a linear television schedule, then such serialized shows are investments requiring much more patience than broadcast networks have shown in recent years, and the ability to easily catch up on past episodes is instrumental to allow the audience for such a show to grow fairly quickly over the seasons. Regardless of whatever else you may think about the CBS-Time Warner Cable dispute that ended earlier this month, this is why Les Moonves’ desire to secure CBS’ right to sign digital distribution deals with platforms beyond cable operators was so relevant.

I personally think most of what currently passes for a scripted show on linear television will move to the Internet within a decade. What’s left, though, will need to provide a good reason for people to come back at the exact same time every week – and in doing so, they may want to take a few pages from webcomics’ playbook.

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