Breaking Bad, Breaking Rules, Breaking Records

Streaming websites, illegal downloads and a real-time interactive platform have led to the over-the-top success of the show.

Here are a few numbers that might interest Walter White, the empirical data-loving hero of the American crime drama series “Breaking Bad,” which aired its final episode this week: Up until the fifth and last season, each episode of the series drew between two to three million viewers − but the final season drew an average of four million viewers, with Episode 15 hitting a peak of 6.6 million. And here’s an even more surprising number: Netflix revealed this week that 50,000 subscribers watched the entire fourth season ‏(a 13-episode marathon‏) in the 24 hours prior to the start of the second half of the fifth season in August, and hundreds of thousands watched it in the two months since.

All of which is to say that “Breaking Bad” is one of the only shows to have ever doubled its number of viewers from its first season to its last − and it reached this notable achievement thanks to streaming websites and illegal downloads. By comparison, in 2007, when “The Sopranos” reached its finale, Netflix was still something of a niche site, and marathon viewing sessions, in which fans catch up on a whole series in just a few short weeks, were still a new phenomenon.

But what just a few years ago was looked down upon as a bad habit of a marginal number of TV addicts has now become the thing to do: More viewers caught up on the first four seasons of “Breaking Bad” and joined its regular fans in the fifth season than watched the series from its inception, back in January 2008. Interestingly, the AMC cable network that broadcasts the show was quick to note this trend − and to enthusiastically promote it: The network created a highly popular Facebook age that recorded 5.7 million Likes and drew thousands of comments on each status ‏(in comparison, “Game of Thrones” has 170,000 Likes; “Mad Men” has “only” 2.5 million‏).

AMC even took things a step further and in the final season also launched a format called Story Sync. The concept is based on the fact that many of the series’ fans watch each episode more than once, or surf forums and social networks while watching. With Story Sync, viewers are invited to log on to the official AMC website in real time, while the episode is being broadcast, and simultaneously to watch live updates posted there: These include exclusive pictures, commentary on things happening on screen, trivia games and even special video clips that can be watched during the commercials.

This “second screen experience,” as the network refers to this phenomenon − i.e., the ability to watch two screens simultaneously − has been offered in addition to a series of weekly discussions called “Talking Bad,” in which the writers and cast members analyzed the week’s episode.

Last Sunday, after the finale was aired in the United States, the show’s Facebook page soon featured a special farewell video for fans.

The tens of thousands of fans who commented on the video proved that Walter White may have broken our hearts, but thanks to him we gained an interactive viewing experience and have witnessed further evidence of new developments in consumer habits.