Walter White returns to TV tonight. Actor Bryan Cranston's meth-dealing chemistry teacher gets eight more episodes to drive ratings for upstart AMC Networks (NASDAQ:AMCX). The series finale airs Sept. 29.
Some are no doubt sad to the series go. Not me. As a fan and an investor, I think AMC is parting ways with Breaking Bad at just the right time. I'll explain why in a minute. First, let's recount where we've been.
For AMC, Breaking Bad should have signaled to competitors that the budding network was to be taken seriously when Season 1 ended with four Emmy nominations and two wins. Mad Men, launched six months earlier, scored 15 Emmy nominations and six wins following its first season. That the two shows drew both audience and critical interest should have been a sign to networks that HBO had company in pushing the limits of television drama.
Networks nevertheless stuck with an all-too-familiar mix of unscripted (i.e., American Idol) and milquetoast programming even as Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL) and HBO released eventual ratings winner True Blood while CBS unit Showtime enjoyed growing audiences for Dexter and Californication.
Among mainstream channels, only Fox pushed boundaries. The FX Channel's Sons of Anarchy, which also made its debut in 2008, continues to be a fan favorite, while The Simpsons and Family Guy have practically redefined animated television.
AMC's Breaking Bad hasn't had nearly the same impact. But the numbers sure have been good: Last summer's Season 5 premiere drew 2.9 million viewers, up 14%. And that's in spite of a DISH Network blackout that threatened ratings and AMC's profit potential. The two have since resolved their differences.
Why pull the plug on Breaking Bad when the show is hitting a ratings high? Because all great stories have an ending. Also, AMC needs more content to keep the earnings engine humming, and that means developing new properties for syndication via Netflix, Amazon.com, iTunes, and others. Breaking Bad needs to die so that other programming can live.
And there will be more programming. AMC recently greenlit two new series for the 2014 TV season: Halt & Catch Fire, about the early computer revolution in Texas' Silicon Prairie, and Turn, a spy drama set during the American Revolutionary War. In all, AMC has 67 projects in various stages of development, network President Charlie Collier said in a recent interview with The New York Times.
So even though Walter White will soon say goodbye, AMC will bring fans plenty more characters worth watching. Can investors really ask for more than that? Leave a comment to let us know what you think of AMC, Breaking Bad, and the ever-shifting business of television.