c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

Right now, Kyle Bauer fears “Breaking Bad” spoilers more than a pop quiz in class.

At the University of Pittsburgh, where Bauer is studying engineering, students cram into his dormitory lounge every Sunday night to watch the latest episode. But not Bauer, who was, as of Monday, still about 20 episodes behind. That night, he started binge viewing so that he could be in the lounge for Sunday’s all-important finale — figuring that if he was not there to see the ending when everyone else did, someone would spoil it for him.

“My friends are telling me it’ll be the best decision of my life,” he said Wednesday night, without even hitting pause during his marathon to talk to a reporter.

In its final season, “Breaking Bad” on AMC has become the It Show on cable television. All over the country, converts to the series about a mild-mannered teacher turned drug lord have set aside schoolwork, dishes and laundry to try to catch up on old episodes through Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and other Internet services.

The hype around hit television show finales has always been intense, but what has happened with “Breaking Bad” exemplifies a twist in the relationship between the parallel universes of live, linear television (the kind symbolized by Comcast and DirecTV) and on-demand TV (as embodied by Netflix).

On-demand services are typically thought to hurt live television viewing. In this case, they are fueling it.

“Breaking Bad” made its debut in 2008 to an underwhelming 1.2 million viewers — which would have caused many programming chiefs to drop it. But the show dodged cancellation and slowly built a following — especially once the old episodes were made available en masse on Netflix.

By mid-2012, about 2.6 million viewers were watching live episodes; now, as the ending approaches, that total has more than doubled to 6 million, which might be small for a network television show but makes “Breaking Bad” one of the biggest phenomena on cable.

“What’s remarkable about this show is we’ve created urgency to see it,” said Charlie Collier, the president of AMC, which has been running a marathon of every episode since Wednesday.

DVDs and, before that, VHS tapes have allowed audiences to catch up on shows for a long time — in fact, the popularity of “Family Guy” DVDs was partly credited with the 2005 revival of the once-canceled Fox animated comedy. But binge-viewing behavior has become much more pronounced in the past few years, mainly because Netflix and services like it have made it easy to do.

Sunday, as “Breaking Bad” was finally winning the television industry’s highest honor, an Emmy award for outstanding drama, the show set a ratings record for itself — 6.6 million, according to Nielsen — making it the biggest program on cable that night. At the same time, many people were just starting their marathons. According to Netflix, each day for the past two weeks, the most-streamed episode of the show has been the first one, during which Walter White crystallized methamphetamine for the first time.

The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, credited the Internet when accepting his Emmy.

“I think Netflix kept us on the air,” he told reporters backstage, adding that he did not believe that the show wouldn’t have survived more than two seasons without the audience and revenue lifts that Netflix provided, along with online chatter.

As first reported by AdAge, the network sought $300,000 to $400,000 for a 30-second ad in the final episode. AMC confirmed Friday night that the episode was sold out. The network declined to comment on pricing, but assuming it achieved $300,000 a spot, it will be earning more for the air time than even the highest-rated network dramas normally do.

“It’s a new era in television,” Gilligan said, “and we’ve been very fortunate to reap the benefits.”

Bauer will be ready — as of Friday afternoon, he had only five more episodes to watch, and he was saving them for Sunday.

Justin Carroll, a bank employee in Lexington, Ky., started to binge a little earlier — Sept. 12 — because he “wanted to be part of the discussion” with his friends.


Judy Weinstein, a human resources consultant in Los Angeles, started Sept. 22 because of media coverage of the show and a crucial endorsement from a more personal source, her spin class instructor, who would “come to class every Monday morning and talk about how she couldn’t sleep the night before after watching.” she said.

She is glad she did — although, after she finished her marathon Thursday, she observed there was one downside: “In retrospect, it is a difficult show to binge watch because it just keeps getting darker and darker.”


Collier of AMC said that social networking websites had amplified all the endorsements and other chatter about the show that would have happened anyway without the Web. (Nielsen estimates that the average person’s Twitter message about a TV show is seen by 50 people.)

“Word of mouth is still a great thing,” he said.

Netflix doesn’t share specific viewership data, so it is hard to say how many people have caught up on “Breaking Bad” online. But the company has certainly been happy to share in the credit for the show’s rise.

“We keep creating a new audience for a show that is on the verge of done,” said Jonathan Friedland, a Netflix spokesman.


Collier pointed out that there have been many other ways to see the series on-demand, including through AMC’s own website, but for now Netflix remains the catchall term for catching up.

Perhaps aptly for a show about a meth dealer, Melodie Holmes, whose husband signed up for Netflix last fall, has noticed its addictive tendencies.

“We generally watch two episodes a night and look at each other seeing whether or not we could stay awake on a ‘school night’ for more,” she said.