Walter White's journey from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to ruthless drug lord came to an end Sunday night with the record-breaking finale of AMC's unlikely hit "Breaking Bad." The meth drama's pop culture trajectory stands in sharp contrast to Walt's own spectacular crash and burn; the worse Walt's situation became, the more people started tuning in. The show premiered back in 2008 with an average of just 1.2 million viewers but drew in 10.3 million viewers for its finale and recently won an Emmy award for best drama series.
However, the show-runners believe this success couldn't have been possible without help from a perhaps unexpected source: Netflix. The online, subscription-based video streaming service, where viewers can watch past seasons of "Breaking Bad" and other shows, helped "Breaking Bad" find new viewers and build into one of the most buzzed-about dramas in recent years.
"I think Netflix kept us on the air," said show-runner Vince Gilligan. "... I don't think our show would have even lasted beyond season two. ... It's a new era in television, and we've been very fortunate to reap the benefits."
It's tough to deny that Netflix has forever changed the television industry. In fact, one of the company's own original productions, a political drama starring Kevin Spacey called "House of Cards," was nominated for an Emmy of its own. Netflix has altered what we watch, and how and when we watch it. It's brought some good changes to the industry, but there are some possible drawbacks, as well.
In the past, if you wanted to watch an episode of a TV show, you'd either have to watch it live when it aired or record it on a VCR. If you wanted to see a show on a cable network, you had to be willing to pay the monthly bill for cable service (right now, the average for this service is $70+). However, now you can pay just $8 a month to stream as much content as you want from Netflix from anywhere you want, as long as there's an Internet connection. More and more people seem to be using Netflix to access content, as well as other online streaming services such Hulu. Watching a show live is no longer as important as it once was.
I must admit, I now use Netflix almost exclusively to watch TV shows. My work schedule varies quite a bit from week to week, so I don't always know for certain if I'll be able to be home at a certain time to watch a TV show live. I like being able to watch through one show at a time, instead of trying to keep up with multiple shows in a week. I don't have cable, so I love the fact that I can still catch cable shows like "Doctor Who" and "White Collar." And even if I'm following a currently airing show, I'll usually end up watching it on an online service anyway. I watched the CW's superhero drama "Arrow" on Hulu and have caught up on some "Downton Abbey" episodes on PBS' website.
I also like Netflix because I've discovered some shows through the service I might never have found otherwise. As a self-proclaimed British TV addict, ;) I found several of my favorite shows, such as "Merlin" and "The IT Crowd," through Netflix. It's a great way to access past shows that have finished airing without having to buy the complete series on DVD.
And yet, depending on your perspective, there can be some drawbacks from moving towards an instant streaming model. It's great for consumers to be able to watch a program advertisement-free on Netflix, but this has brought some challenges to the advertising industry as traditional means of marketing products no longer work as well.
Also, the entertainment industry is likely to become more fragmented over time as people are more easily able to pick programs that are targeted to their individual tastes. I think the days where everyone watches the same program at the same time are probably over. Although "Breaking Bad's" 10.3 million viewers for the finale is impressive, it still doesn't compare to the ratings "American Idol" once saw in its heyday, when the show was able to draw 35+ million viewers. I'm not sure we'll see numbers like that again. TV has become less of a communal experience and more of an individual one — though it's up for debate about whether this shift is good or bad.
It's also a little tougher to avoid spoilers for TV shows. People may not watch an episode of a show until a few days after it has aired, or they may even discover a show a few years after it has gone off the air. My friends are all following different shows at different times, so we all have to be careful when we talk about our favorite shows to avoid giving away plot details. ;)
Netflix makes it easy to "binge-watch" — going through an entire season or maybe even an entire series in a weekend. Sometimes it's fun to binge-watch, but it can also lead to burn out. Even if a show is really good, the episodes may start to feel repetitive after a while, and I've gotten tired of a few series just because I watched too many episodes in a row. I've actually found I enjoy shows a little more if I force myself to space them out, even though sometimes this is really hard, especially with episodes that are cliffhangers. ;)
Still, I'm a big fan of Netflix overall, and I think the shift to instant streaming is more good than bad. Shows that have already finished airing can continue to find new audiences, and shows that start off with modest or lower ratings, like "Breaking Bad," can still find a path to success. The concept of more original Netflix programming is exciting too.
So, what do you think of Netflix? Do you prefer to watch shows live or stream them online? Is the shift to more viewer control about what and when to watch a positive change for the entertainment industry?