Vince Gilligan–creator of the Emmy-winning television series Breaking Bad–recently spoke to Variety for an interview in honor of the series finale’s 10th anniversary. The interview featured teasing snippets of info about Gilligan’s upcoming sci-fi show (including the fact that it will not feature meth) along with reflections and regrets from the years he spent working on Breaking Bad, but it also featured a rather unexpected statement regarding streaming, with Gilligan saying, “I don’t know how streaming makes money.”
The quote comes as part of a response to a question Gilligan was asked regarding the outcome of the Writer’s Guild of America strike, which ended recently and saw the WGA strike a deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that many union members see as favorable.
“I think it’s a good contract, and it’s going to help with that [discrepancy in pay due to streaming],” Gilligan said. “The business is so different now because of streaming. It reminds me of the Charles Dickens quote, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ If it weren’t for the advent of streaming, you would[n’t] be interviewing me. Breaking Bad would have been canceled because it wasn’t getting good numbers.”
Gilligan went on to say that AMC “took a big gamble on Breaking Bad when no one else would,” but that ultimately, the show was still struggling. That is until just before Season 4, when Netflix added the first three seasons of the show to its streaming catalogue, drastically boosting the show’s viewership even on its home network, AMC.
This continued throughout the rest of the show’s run, with prior seasons being added just before the debut of the next one, and the effect Netflix had on the Breaking Bad’s success is clear. The Season 4 finale pulled in under 2 million viewers on AMC, but not long afterwards, the Season 5 finale pulled in 10 million.
“Streaming, as practiced by Netflix, rode in like the cavalry at the last minute and kept our show going,” Gilligan said of the massive boost in popularity the show received after being added to Netflix’s library. “Streaming is wonderful on that level, and it’s a wonderful convenience to watch any show you want instantly.”
But it’s not all sunshine and roses. A major point of contention between SAG-AFTRA and Hollywood producers is the right to residuals from streaming. Netflix has even announced it plans to raise prices for its various subscription tiers once the strike comes to an end (and it’s not the only service planning to increase prices). But until producers and performers come to an official agreement, nothing is set in stone, and Gilligan has expressed concerns for the future of streaming itself.
“On the other hand–as what often happens with technology, going back to the A-bomb, we invent something and only afterward figure out how to use it–TV was a wonderful business when it was ad-supported, when writers made a good living,” Gilligan opined. “The folks at the studios and the networks also made a lot of money. I don’t know how streaming makes money. How do you monetize doing 700 shows, with each one having six or eight episodes and only two or three seasons? I guess Netflix is profitable–certainly that’s what they tell Wall Street–but I don’t know how streaming generally can be a profitable enterprise, compared to the old system of ad-supported seasons of 20-some episodes or more. We know that system works and made money, without any accounting obfuscation.”
Gilligan also shared his thoughts on the ever-changing list of available streaming services, which seem to come into existence out of nowhere, with some becoming entertainment powerhouses, others choosing to rebrand, and still others poofing out of existence seemingly at the drop of a hat.
“Netflix kind of invented this system of streaming and everyone else had to pile in, to the detriment of the previous system,” Gilligan said of the many streaming services that have popped up in recent years. “The whole thing feels like it’s teetering and about to collapse. Strike or no strike, who knows how this thing progresses? Suddenly, do we go from 700 shows back to 100? I’m generally a little pessimistic about how all of this continues because at a certain point, Wall Street stockholders demand that the companies be profitable.”
Gilligan seems to have a point there. While some streaming companies are raising prices, even streaming giants like Disney Plus are feeling the squeeze–or feeling it enough to make some serious changes, at least. In the last year alone, Disney’s enormous streaming service has canceled a finished show before it even aired, removed some content from its current catalogue, planned a password-sharing crackdown, and admitted that rushed content has hurt the performance of both Marvel and Pixar films, shows, and miniseries. Disney isn’t alone, either. In 2022, Max (formerly known as HBO Max) surprised subscribers by announcing the cancellation of its hit show, Westworld, and removing it from the service entirely, opting to move the first four seasons of the show to a free ad-supported television (FAST) channel or service. Currently, Westworld is available on Amazon Video, Vudu, and Google Play.
Ultimately, these events paint a portrait of an industry in disarray, one where simply getting the first few seasons of your show picked up by Netflix doesn’t necessarily guarantee a major boost in views for season finales shown on cable.
“I don’t understand the system, but sometimes it feels like a Ponzi scheme to me,” Gilligan said regarding the uncertain future of streaming. “It’s all way beyond my paygrade, but there’s a lot of unrest in the labor world because people are looking around and saying, ‘How is this going to work in the long term?’ Maybe it won’t.”
The future of streaming remains unclear, but that hasn’t stopped Gilligan from continuing to produce television. The name of his new sci-fi series has not yet been revealed, but we do know two things: Like Breaking Bad, it’s set in New Mexico, but unlike Breaking Bad, it will be streaming on Apple TV+.
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