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All Methed Up and Nowhere to Go

Return of AMC's 'Breaking Bad' scares up big ratings

Brian Cranston, Breaking Bad. Photo: Moises De Pena/AMC via Getty Images

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Despite being blacked out in some 14.1 million DISH Network homes, the return of AMC’s Breaking Bad on Sunday night set a series ratings record.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the Season 5 premiere of Breaking Bad scared up 2.93 million viewers, establishing it as the most-watched installment in the show’s history.

Of those who tuned in to AMC Sunday night at 10 p.m., more than half (1.9 million) were members of the 18-to-49 demo—an improvement of 34 percent versus the Season 4 premiere.

While AMC offered free streaming of the season opener to DISH subscribers, those deliveries were not incorporated in the Nielsen data. The satellite-TV provider stopped carrying AMC on July 1; ironically, DISH cited low ratings as a justification to drop the network.

“From Day 1, Breaking Bad has been a passion project for all of us at AMC,” said network president Charlie Collier. “This show has helped define what our brand stands for in terms of supporting quality storytelling and creative risk taking. Working with these terrifically creative people on such outstanding material has been a joy-filled ride.”

Starring Bryan Cranston as the high school chemistry teacher-turned-drug lord Walter White and Aaron Paul as Walter’s increasingly conflicted No. 2, Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad at long last appears to be drawing an audience commensurate with its vast critical acclaim. (Since its sophomore season, a full-throated chorus of TV writers has faithfully sung Breaking Bad’s praises, ranking it alongside contemporary classics such as The Wire and The Sopranos. They are not incorrect.)

That said, Breaking Bad does tend to see a good deal of slippage in the interval between the first and second episodes of a given season. After reaching a previous high-water mark (2.58 million viewers) on July 17, 2011, the following installment fell 24 percent to 1.97 million viewers.

All told, last season was the series’ most-watched to date, drawing an average 1.87 million viewers per episode.

The always crowded 10 p.m. slot was even more frenzied last night, as USA Network bowed its limited series Political Animals. Subject to two lengthy weekend previews in The New York Times, the Sigourney Weaver drama got off to a rather soft launch, drawing 2.62 million viewers, of which a little more than a quarter (26 percent) were in the 18-to-49 demo. Adults 25-to-54 accounted for 32 percent of the premiere’s overall deliveries.

While the first of six one-hour installments was greeted with largely positive reviews, the competitive landscape may have been too much for Political Animals. Along with Breaking Bad, the Beltway drama also went head-to-head with A&E’s Longmire and HBO’s The Newsroom.

Of course, given all the quality drama on display in the time slot, a look at C3 data will be far more instructive than LSD deliveries. Trouble is, it takes three weeks to process the relevant data, and by that time, the fate of Political Animals may already be sealed. (USA is said to have been interested in expanding the limited series into a full-on strip, much as it did in 2008 with the Debra Messing vehicle The Starter Wife.)

For all the political and criminal intrigue to be found elsewhere, the night belonged to A&E. The seventh installment of Longmire delivered 4.45 million total viewers, marking the biggest turnout since 4.15 million viewers checked in for the June 3 premiere.

An older-skewing series, Longmire delivered a 0.8 rating in the 18-to-49 demo.

For its part, The Newsroom slipped to 1.94 million viewers in its fourth installment, down 12 percent from 2.21 million the previous week. The demo remained stable (0.9).