After three take-no-prisoners episodes set the stage for the most anticipated series finale in recent memory, Breaking Bad ended on the highest of high notes. In masterfully bringing the narrative in for a landing, creator Vince Gilligan put Breaking Bad in a position to smash its own ratings records.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, AMC’s Breaking Bad delivered a whopping 10.3 million total viewers and a 5.3 rating in the key adults 18-49 demo. That marks a 57 percent improvement over the show’s previous high (6.58 million viewers) and a 56 percent gain versus last week’s high-water mark (3.4 in the demo).
The 75-minute episode managed to derail much of the night’s broadcast fare, as ABC and CBS both sustained significant ratings erosion from 9-10:15 p.m.
Not only did Breaking Bad hold its own against broadcast dramas The Good Wife and Revenge, but it also went head-to-head with the season premiere of Showtime’s Homeland and the juggernaut that is NBC’s Sunday Night Football.
While Breaking Bad has earned a place among TV’s all-time greatest series, the show was the very definition of a slow burner. The strike-shortened Season 1 averaged just 1.23 million viewers, and Season 2 didn’t see a great uptick in deliveries. In fact, the show didn’t crack the 2 million mark until the Season 4 premiere (2.58 million viewers/1.1 rating).
But once the end was in sight (and people were able to catch up via Netflix), the ratings began to soar. By the time it returned for its final eight episodes, Breaking Bad was routinely topping itself.
Unlike many series that perhaps overstayed their welcome, Gilligan had Breaking Bad plotted out from beginning to end. There was no flab anywhere in the show, and the story just got leaner and meaner as Walter White’s options began to run out.
“I knew it was a finite series that had a beginning and an end,” Gilligan told Adweek in March, just days following the Breaking Bad wrap party. “Most series are designed to sort of go on forever, like a Law & Order or a Gunsmoke. But with Breaking Bad, and the story I wanted to tell … I knew it was finite.”
Gilligan had difficulty raising interest in his project, which he famously characterized as “taking Mr. Chips and turning him into Scarface.” But AMC chief Charlie Collier swooped in when no one else wanted to take a chance on a show about a meth-cooking cancer patient and his junkie apprentice.
“Charlie rode in like a white knight,” Gilligan said, adding that his agent at first was ambivalent about shopping the show to AMC. (At the time, Mad Men had yet to premiere.) “‘AMC? You mean the network that shows Short Circuit 2? Let’s just send it to the Food Network; it’s a show about cooking, after all,’” Gilligan recalled, affectionately lampooning his rep’s initial reaction. “In my heart, I wasn’t sure it would ever make it to the air. And thanks to AMC, it did.”
“Breaking Bad is simply unique,” Collier said. “It all starts with Vince Gilligan, who really only ever asked for one thing—the opportunity to end the show on his own terms. That is exactly what Vince did last night and, as always, brilliantly so.”
AMC was able to price 30-second units of airtime in the finale for around $320,000 to $340,000 a pop. Considering that Breaking Bad more than doubled the rating of the broadcast competition, it would appear that the investment paid off handsomely.
While The Walking Dead remains AMC’s ratings leader—the March 31 Season 3 finale averaged a staggering 12.4 million viewers and a 6.4 in the dollar demo—Breaking Bad’s finale puts it in the company of some historically significant curtain closers. For example, the June 10, 2007, finale of HBO’s The Sopranos delivered 11.9 million viewers, while Sex and the City signed off in front of an audience of 10.6 million viewers.
Among the cable finales that Breaking Bad outgunned are USA Network’s Monk (9.44 million viewers/2.3 rating) and TNT’s The Closer (9.08 million/1.6). Last night’s finale also beat several broadcast closers, including NBC’s The West Wing (10.1 million/3.0 rating) and Fox’s 24 (9.31 million/2.9 rating).