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Is Netflix suddenly a cable TV kingmaker?

The television world was rocked this week by the news that the cult series Breaking Bad hit 5.9 million viewers with its season opener. This nearly doubled the 3 million level for the first episode of its previous season. Breaking Bad has always been a bit of a niche show: Its first season started with 1.4 million viewers and the second season grew only by a modest 300,000 viewers. So why on earth is the last season of the show suddenly a ratings bonanza? Variety has an interesting theory: Netflix has turned into a cable kingmaker, able to turn critically acclaimed shows with mediocre initial ratings into blockbusters.

The starting point to the argument is that five-year-old shows almost never grow substantially, even in their last seasons. Audiences have made up their minds much earlier and catching up with half a decade of events is difficult, if not impossible. But viewing several seasons of episodes on Netflix is much easier than recording marathons on DVR or hunting down stacks of DVDs. For its subscribers, Netflix offers a no-cost, no-hassle way of sampling a show you might have missed several years ago.

This could potentially change the tense negotiation dynamics between Netflix and content providers. What if Netflix can prove that it can jack up a show’s audience level by 60% to 100% even after the series has seemed to level off in its fourth or fifth year? Would it be able then to demand much cheaper package deals from the big production houses? Variety believes that Fox’s New Girl comedy may be the next test for Netflix. We’ll see in the autumn whether recent Netflix availability will start broadening the appeal of the series, which no longer looks as fresh or buzzy as it did two years ago.

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