AMC's (NASDAQ:AMCX) Breaking Bad has been one of the best-written shows in television history. Its series finale last weekend was as amazing as its entire run. Over the years, like the Pied Piper, Walter White and those his behavior touched lured more and more followers, all unable to look away from a character showing the effects of power, greed, and pride. The series' triumphant finale pulled in 10.3 million viewers.
So what do we do now that Breaking Bad is gone? Maybe we can think about the state of television as we begin "breaking bored." The show had very little competition for its reputation as a thought-provoking, suspenseful, and even artistic show.
Doing the right thing in media
Breaking Bad was different; it was dark. Given the joke -- not far from the truth -- that we have hundreds of cable channels and nothing to watch, networks taking on antiheroes deserve some credit when the conventional wisdom assumes most viewers crave heroes, or sensationalism.
Breaking Bad took antihero to an ultimate level. Although the writers occasionally inserted dark humor into the plot, most of the show's situations were gritty and often disturbing.
The show started off sleepy in terms of audience. Many major networks turned it down for various reasons. Still, as word of mouth spread, Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) helped viewers catch up on previous seasons and immerse themselves in the experience. That's an effect of the ability to stream video, the "binge watching" behavior that could help Netflix's business as it adjusts to changing times.
Perhaps most impressive of all -- and arguably a turn toward art, something rarely available on the boob tube -- the team that brought us Breaking Bad killed the show before it could kill fans with boredom. As much as many of us will miss our Sunday night appointment, the conclusion was masterful and satisfying when so many shows push on until they lose any power they had.
Vince Gilligan and his Breaking Bad accomplices didn't fall for the pitfalls that Walter White -- and many in the media -- did. They resisted the urge, spurred on by pride and money, not to mention fans' continued adulation, to keep the show going. Possibly even more shocking, those who profit from the show, including AMC, were apparently OK with that choice.
Doing the wrong thing in media
Discovery's (NASDAQ:DISCA) recent Shark Week stunt in August proved to be the opposite of Breaking Bad. Pardon the pun, but perhaps the week should have featured a show called "Sharkmania Jumps the Shark." Many people look forward to the annual event centering on one of the scariest creatures on our planet. The problem is that sharks don't actually require dramatization; they're dramatic on their own.
B-movies like Sharknado and MegaShark vs. Crocosaurus have proven very popular among Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Syfy Channel viewers. Many of these outrageous flicks involved sharks, and their formula must have simply been too difficult for Discovery to resist. Programming like Voodoo Shark and, the most outrageous, Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, proved the point.
Shark Week did generate record viewership despite leaving a bad impression on many. However, social media outcry revealed significant disappointment and even outrage, with Shark Week fans saying that Megalodon was a mockumentary, not a documentary. Indeed, 4.8 million watched it, and Bloomberg Businessweek reported that 79% of viewers had thought it was a real documentary until they found out it wasn't.
Guess what: The brand could be smeared, and fans may not come back for Shark Week next year. If Discovery doesn't clean up its act, the blood in the water for its business could be a severe problem.
Discovery's choice was a terrible one, and its decision was surely swayed by what it believed viewers wanted from sharks. That devolved into the temptation to turn programming into sensationalism, and to substitute spectacle for information.
Watching outlandish B-movies is fun. They're so bad they're good. Watching entertainment posed as reality, programming sinking to sensationalism, is just plain bad.
Breaking ground vs. breaking brand
AMC now has a hurdle: It's losing one heck of a popular show. Investors might be worried about that, but they shouldn't be. Ending Breaking Bad on a strong, solid note exhibits a too-rarely seen integrity in modern media.
According to Bloomberg, CEO Josh Sapan said, "The creators of Breaking Bad are bringing it, we think, to an exquisite end." The show "will provide some brand sheen after it's gone."
Hopefully more networks will appreciate the need for awesome, well-written, thought-provoking programming handled with grace and fill the void. The flood of reality shows has been one of the worst examples of profit over quality. They require very little outlay of money, and they don't even require writers.
Here's a quick look that deserves more research: When it comes to brand image and loyal viewership that could lead one to make a compelling media play, AMC could be considered a more appealing stock than Discovery, and not just because its forward price-to-earnings ratio of 17 is lower than Discovery's 20 times forward earnings. A "brand sheen" for good, solid dramatic programming is an important thing to consider, and right now, AMC's got that down.
If we're not interested in researching media stocks, what else can we do now that Breaking Bad's gone? We can watch AMC's The Walking Dead soon -- thank goodness.
A reader saw my Shark Week coverage and suggested I watch a similarly disappointing and appalling show: Amish Mafia. It's on my to-do list, but I'm worried. Of course, the recommendation had nothing to do with the show being good. It's the expectation of a one-off viewing that's very, very bad, probably laughably so.
So long, Breaking Bad. We'll miss you. Hopefully your legacy will lead media companies to embrace more opportunities to race to the top instead of the bottom.
Alyce Lomax has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends AMC Networks and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.