Bridging Niche, Mainstream, and Prestige Television

In Ron Becker’s “Prime-Time Television in the Gay Nineties,” he addressed how television networks are motivated by niche audiences to provide material in exchange for viewership and increased advertisement revenue.  Here, I use Breaking Bad as a case to examine how networks currently try to attract audiences that will increase revenue.

The audience of a television series can demonstrate many important details about the show.  Ron Becker’s “Prime-Time Television in the Gay Nineties” introduces and discusses the significance of a television audience’s demographics and why incorporating certain characters or themes in a series can have substantial benefits for viewership and revenue.  Out of this, he links the rise of gay and lesbian characters with new audiences for the television series and markets for advertisers.  Breaking Bad’s audience poses a unique case; it is a series founded with the intention of niche narrowcasting that has become overwhelmingly popular due to its critical acclaim.  Breaking Bad used this success to attract different types of viewers and develop a quality audience.

Before examining Breaking Bad’s audience development, it is necessary to understand the main points of Becker’s essay.  First, Becker notes that the progressive shift towards acceptance and support of the gay and lesbian community by television networks was heavily influenced by economic factors, as appealing to this community would allow television networks to access an untapped audience (391).  The television industry considered this new audience to be a quality audience.  According to Becker, a quality audience embodies certain key aspects.  From a network and advertiser’s point of view, a quality audience is comprised of active consumers with high levels of disposable income.  Targeting this demographic allows networks to generate more revenue by charging more for advertising, since companies are willing to pay more for ads when the audience is likely to consume.  Becker’s description of the quality audiences in the 1990s shows that this group was college-educated, urban, hip, upscale, and young —about 18 to 49 years old (390).  Incorporation of gay characters and social struggles attracted this audience; understandably, networks that began including gay and lesbian characters captivated much larger shares of the gay and lesbian audience.  The gay and lesbian audience is also seen as a subsection of Becker’s definition of a quality audience, as market research in the 1990s indicated that gays and lesbians had more education and higher income than average television viewers.  However, a quality audience is not necessarily urban or liberal.  Rather, anyone with ample disposable income can be considered part of a quality audience.  When Becker wrote his essay in 1998, being young and urban was associated with being part of a quality audience, but these parameters are susceptible to change.  This is a challenge for television producers; market research can indicate who has the most disposable income, but it is quite difficult to quickly provide content that appeals to this specific demographic.

The premise of Breaking Bad was not created for the sole purpose of reaching a large or quality audience.  Unlike Becker’s list of shows in the 1990s that catered to socially liberal urban-minded professionals — dubbed slumpies by Becker —  the series does not take place in a liberal, urban environment and the characters are not noticeably sophisticated.  New Mexico is portrayed as sparse and the characters often struggle with poverty, crime, and drug use.  This is partly due to Gilligan’s fervent attention to detail and realism; the cast and setting is made to be as realistic as possible.  While series like Seinfeld and Sex and the City focused on the lives of upper middle class urban characters, Gilligan would rather have Breaking Bad feature painfully realistic portrayals of characters and struggles than fictionalized representation that would appeal to a specific audience.  Though the setting and characters of the series do not seem likely to attract a wealthy, consumerist audience, the positive reception of the series has made Breaking Bad an advertising and ratings success for AMC.  Rather than making content that will directly appeal to a quality audience, current television series have been exploring alternative ways to capture this audience.

With the success and acclaim of Breaking Bad, it can be difficult to remember when the series was relatively unknown and attracted only a small share of viewers.  The beginning of the series is often criticized for its gruesomeness and gritty production, but the later seasons have received universal honors.  While Breaking Bad was not always a popular television series, AMC’s information on viewer demographics indicate that Breaking Bad viewership grew significantly after receiving praise from television critics.  Also, as popularity grew, Breaking Bad began attracting a larger percentage of wealthy and educated viewers.  While the series originally seemed to target young and middle-aged male viewers, the outstanding reception has led to a rise in popularity among viewers of nearly all demographics, but especially viewers with high income levels.  The noticeable rise in viewership of a wealthy audience highlights how contemporary series like Breaking Bad are attracting quality audiences.  Beginning in the 2000s and continuing into the 2010s, the programming trend has been that of creating prestigious, high quality television.  The theatrical elements, plot development, and superior production of series like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men allowed these shows to attract substantive proportions of quality audiences.  Although Breaking Bad has benefited from its prestige, is has not been as successful among wealthy viewers as Mad Men or The Sopranos.  However, AMC and Breaking Bad have been able to profit from the quantity of their audience rather than only the quality.

Breaking Bad is highly regarded as one of the most renowned televisions series of all time.  In conjunction with the acclaim and moderate success among quality audiences, Breaking Bad has seen impressive growth in its overall viewership.  Originally, the viewership of Breaking Bad reflected the themes and characters of the series, much like the strategy employed by shows in the 1990s.  However, unlike the examples used by Becker, the themes and characters of Breaking Bad did not target wealthy television viewers.  According to AMC viewership data, the audience of Breaking Bad attracted a lower of a percentage of wealthy individuals than Mad Men, which in addition to prestige, relied on the use of wealthy, urban characters and themes of consumption.  However, the most popular episodes of Breaking Bad attracted about three times as many viewers and the most popular Mad Men episodes.  Though not as successful in attracting a quality audience, Breaking Bad benefits from its dedicated fan base and word-of-mouth marketing.  Breaking Bad is a continual piece of conversation among viewers and anecdotal claims indicate that many people began watching the series because it was recommended by friends or acquaintances.  While AMC aired the series to target a niche audience, its excellence has propelled it into popular, mainstream television, with viewership rivaling network shows.  In this way, the advertising success of Breaking Bad is a hybrid of attracting both a quality audience and a large audience.  However, it is important to remember that the series was not originally created for attracting a large audience like the the shows on major television networks.  Breaking Bad has brought niche television to a mainstream audience.

Breaking Bad serves as a fascinating comparison for Becker’s arguments.  The series includes some Becker’s claims and rejects others, showing how television has evolved to find a quality audience.  Though targeting a quality audience is difficult, Breaking Bad has been able to attract these viewers by establishing itself as one of the most respected series on television.  As Breaking Bad developed, its reputation allow it grow outside of its original niche audience, signifying that no matter what the content of a series, exceptional writing, directing, and acting will attract viewers. Thanks to its success, Breaking Bad has been able to reach the mainstream and expose average viewers to prestigious, niche television.

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