‘Breaking Bad’ won at the Emmys but Netflix still scored

walterwhite600One of the big stories going into last night’s Primetime Emmy Awards was that Netflix had crashed the party. It was the first year a a series produced and distributed by an online digital company received recognition from The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. “House of Cards” — the Netflix original series– received 14 nominations including Outstanding Drama Series. It’s star Kevin Spacey was nominated for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series and the show’s executive producer David Fincher was nominated– and won– for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series. That last category was the only Primetime* win for Netflix…on the surface.

But “Breaking Bad“‘s big win for Outstanding Drama Series— a win that some say is well overdue– is also a win for Netflix.

It proves that Netflix isn’t just a competitor to traditional TV– it’s a collaborator or adjunct to the medium. When part two of “Breaking Bad’s” Season 5 premiered on AMC last month it hit a ratings high of nearly 6 million viewers. Writing in Variety, Andrew Wallenstein said “with five seasons under its belt [“Breaking Bad”] made the kind of ratings quantum leap you just don’t see.”

So how did all these people find — and catch up with– this highly serialized show? In a word, Netflix.

The streaming service generated a critical mass of viewers– enough to turn the Academy away from “Homeland” and “Mad Men” to notice the genius work that “Breaking Bad’s” creator Vince Gilligan, its cast, and crew have been doing all this time. Granted Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul won Emmys for their acting on the show in the past so it’s not as if no one in the Academy noticed. And perhaps viewers’ word of mouth is the true generator of audience growth but without Netflix– and to a lesser extent iTunes– where would all those people go to watch the show people were talking about?

Others saw “Breaking Bad’s” Emmy win as a plus for Netflix, too. The company itself tweeted today to remind followers they they could get caught up on the drama with its streaming service. And Vince Gilligan himself acknowledged as much after the win last night.

I don’t think our show would have even lasted beyond season two if it wasn’t for streaming video on demand, and also the Internet component of it where folks get to chat. It really has held us in good stead. It’s a bold new era in television, and television has changed a lot in six years. I think Netflix kept us on the air. It’s a new era and we’ve been very fortunate to reap the benefits.

When Vince Gilligan talked to KCRW’s The Business last August, he acknowledged that Netflix helped them grow their audience. But when we talked about people bingeing on the show– not just via Netflix but iTunes, DVR, etc–  he was “pleasantly perplexed by it.” While flattered that people would want to binge on anything he created, Gilligan feared for the future of the TV business if this were to become the norm. He feared that if people watched via DVR and skipped the ads there’d be no money– no ad revenue– to make the shows to begin with.

And while he agreed that perhaps Netflix did allow the show to build an audience he dreaded that the future could be something in which traditional ad-supported TV was replaced with a sort of intrusive ad-invasion where creators are asked to give over a portion of their screen to a “crawl” for a “commercial for adult diapers” or the like.

This week, in a bid to get viewers back to AMC and get some love from advertisers, the network will air a “Breaking Bad” marathon of all 62 episodes starting Wednesday and leading up to the finale Sunday night.

Meanwhile, Vince Gilligan will be an executive producer on the “Breaking Bad” spin-off “Better Call Saul,” but he won’t be running that show. So, where will this Emmy-winning show runner land? Will he stick with cable and take his chances on the future of ad-supported television? Or maybe go to a premium channel or to Netflix? Time will tell.

*House of Cards won two Creative Arts Emmys during another ceremony last weekend– for Outstanding Casting and Cinematography.