It may be too much to say last night was the night cable overtook broadcast TV for good — as some media have claimed — but it sure felt that way today. It’s not like broadcasters have never competed on Sunday against numbers like the 10.3 million Breaking Bad attracted in its series finale — HBO’s The Sopranos used to log those crowds on a weekly basis. But broadcasters definitely did not anticipate the media hysteria over the Breaking Bad wrapup, to which they had contributed mightily — most recently in the form of a big fat plug on NBC’s highly hyped Saturday Night Live season debut the very night before BB’s swan song. Breaking Badsteria first erupted one week earlier with the series’ Best Drama Emmy win. Sucks to be CBS, which aired the trophy show that launched AMC’s monster Breaking Bad marketing campaign that did so much to send CBS’ Premiere Week Sunday into double-digit declines in the ratings. (CBS didn’t suffer alone; ABC and Fox experienced same.) Between Breaking Bad‘s Emmy win and Sunday’s finale, AMC unspooled a weeklong full-run-of-series marathon while TV critics scattered role petals in its path. (After the finale aired, the critics got down to the serious business of arguing as to whether Bryan Cranston’s Walter White was TV’s ultimate winner or loser, an American hero or Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning — and if the show’s wrap meant the end, or the dawn of a bright new day, for the economy of Albuquerque, where the show was shot.)
Broadcasters weren’t the only networks to feel the Breaking Bad Effect. Showtime gambled its Homeland would win a second consecutive Best Drama Emmy and scheduled that series’ third-season debut for the following Sunday. In the teeth of Breaking Bad’s blast-off, Homeland opened with a solid 2 million viewers — up 9% compared with last fall’s Season 2 opener and its most-watched premiere yet. Still, the next morning, pretty much nobody was talking about Homeland’s season debut.
Broadcasters are probably anxious to see whether Sunday’s DVR viewing hits a historic Premiere Week high; that would give them reason to hope their Sunday series did not get fatally nuked — just nuked in the moment. (Through the first five days of the TV season, DVR’ing across the TV landscape — broadcast and cable — already was up an impressive 16% over a year ago for viewers of all ages, including an 11% jump in the demo, and an interesting 23% among viewers ages 50-plus, which suggests late adopters are finally on board.) And while they’re waiting for Nielsen to issue those DVR stats, they can mull whether the new-series promotional value of airing the now heavily cable-centric Emmy Awards ceremony is really worth the price of having so hugely helped a retiring basic cable show gun them down on the first Sunday of their new TV season.