12 BREAD, CHEDDAR OR A LOT OF POTATOES
It costs serious money to fill television time. Breaking Bad had 62 episodes. 60 of those episodes lasted for 44 minutes, and the final two had an extended duration of 54 minutes. Added together the viewing time totals 2,748 minutes or 48 hours. The person who managed to watch Breaking Bad all the way through on 47 separate occasions may or not be the record holder but he or she lost three months of his or her life to the dreams of Vince Gilligan. And that assumes no need for the fan to sleep. The AMC network paid for the production costs of Breaking Bad. The income of the AMC network is derived from advertising, DVD sales and the fees paid by streaming services like Netflix that include TV shows in their catalogue. American viewers who watched Breaking Bad when it aired on the network had to endure 14 minutes of adverts as well as the 44 minutes of a normal episode and 21 minutes of adverts in the final two extended episodes.
The final episode of Breaking Bad attracted 10.28m viewers but this was exceptional. In the first season the average number of viewers per episode was 1.3m. By the fourth season the number had increased to 1.9m. After poor Chilean gangster Gus Fring had half the side of his face blown off at the end of season four the show attracted additional internet interest. Season five opened to 2.78m viewers. The USA has a population of nearly 330m and of them, 103.4 million people watched the last Super Bowl, the championship game of the National Football League. Agencies will place advertisements wherever they can but what they and the companies the agencies represent really like are professional competitive sports that guarantee big audiences whatever the quality. No wonder Premier League football teams have enough money to pay obscene salaries to their players or as they say in the North of England say, ‘Muck goes to muck.’
Estimates for the costs and income of TV shows exist and have various sources but they are not precise. Because a large audience was anticipated for the final episode of Breaking Bad, advertisements were charged at the premium rate of $400,000 for 30 seconds which meant that AMC collected something between $7m and $8m for its 54 minute finale. The usual intention is that in the budget for a TV show the costs will at least equate to advertising revenue. The income from DVD sales and renting to streaming services are a bonus and extra profit or should be. The figures may not be precise but the expenditure on Breaking Bad increased between season one and season five. Without the cost for individual episodes the specific rate of increase between each season cannot be calculated. The first season has been quoted as having either an average cost of $1.5m or $3.0m. The latter feels more accurate. The average cost per episode for the final season was $3.5m. Viewing figures did increase over seasons 1 to 4 but not enough to justify a 230% increase in expenditure. A 15% increase or 3.75% per season is credible.
At $3.5m per episode the last season of 16 episodes required $56m worth of production costs. Most of that money would have been used to pay the salaries of the contributors and actors. The Official Breaking Bad Book lists selected contributors and actors. 38 contributors and 32 actors are identified. The key word, though, is selected. Unidentified contributors would include stand ins for the actors, craftsmen used for specific tasks such as painting the Pontiac Aztec of Walt a unique nondescript colour, whoever sculpted a false head of a Mexican bandit and even the trainer that handled the compliant turtle wearing the sculpture. Before that someone would have had to buy the Aztec motor car, three are used in just one scene. Such tasks are endless, as the typical end of movie credits makes clear. Breaking Bad had 62 episodes, and each one would present difficulties and require specialist support. This is one of the reasons why Breaking Bad needed eight executive producers.
All the salaries or ad hoc payments paid to Breaking Bad contributors would have been recorded in the financial accounts of the TV series. What the bookkeepers ignore is the unpaid work that people contribute to any TV show. A weekly episode of Breaking Bad had a shooting schedule of 7–8 days. Listen to a Breaking Bad Insider podcast, and showrunner Vince Gilligan will mention more than once the difficulty of filming an episode in just over a week and handling the pressure from operating within budget. Deadlines on Breaking Bad were tight, and a mere $56m for season five meant that there was also fiscal pressure. The inevitable would have happened. The crew, contributors and actors would extend their working day into unpaid territory. This voluntary activity is not restricted to filming. Editors and post–production staff also feel the pressure of the clock and endure the nagging temptation to add another flourish that will improve their work. Post-production includes incorporating a sound track that includes recognisable sound effects, dialogue that can be understood and scene enhancing music. Digital shots or CGI are also added in the post-production phase. The average for a Breaking Bad episode was 23. For a TV episode this is not excessive but it is at the high end of the industry standard. The episode where Walter and his peers attached a giant magnet to a wall of the local police station included 56 digital shots. Actor Bryan Cranston used some of his spare time to write a back story for Walt in an attempt to develop his characterisation. The scriptwriters had other priorities.
Neither is the cost of all the shows produced by a network contained within the specific budgets allocated to individual projects. A TV network like AMC has to spend money well before any television programming is developed. Someone has to decide which of the ideas from the writers has the potential to be a TV show. AMC will have people on salary who evaluate script proposals and scripts. Meetings and time consuming conferences supplement the reading of scripts. Of the scripts that are prepared only one in five will be approved as suitable for the next stage of production. Whether accepted or dismissed all these scripts will have been purchased.
The next stage in preparing an American TV series is the ‘pilot’. Because it is made as a single episode, the costs are high. Once a TV series is in full production there are benefits that are obtained from repeating tasks and utilising an on–site crew. The average cost of a pilot is $5.5m, almost double the cost of an average episode in season one of Breaking Bad. The magazine Variety calculated that in a typical year a network will film 20 pilots but only six will be given approval to be made into a series. That figure is an average. But if Variety is correct in saying that the average American TV network abandons 14 pilots a year without receiving any income to offset against those production costs it means that $77m is spent per network in one year on stuff they deem unacceptable. The losses do not end there. Of the pilots that are approved, those that executives thought had distinction or envisioned as supporting revenue from advertisers, only 35% will last beyond a single season. In TV the writer is taken more seriously than the director. The opposite applies in the movies. After all the money that has been spent before filming a TV director is expected to do what he is told.
Close to the beginning of the financial year each network will hold a convention and attempt to acquire advertising revenue for the programmes they will show in the next twelve months. At this stage advertisers do not secure spots on individual shows. They are invited to be impressed by the serious commercial plans of the network and pledge fees to the network in order that their products can be included in the breaks for advertisements. The final spots on the last episode of Breaking Bad merited extra payment at a premium rate. Whatever the details of the initial pledges made by the advertising agencies there is enough scope for agencies and networks to subsequently pick specific advertising spots and negotiate variations in the fees.
If all this feels like a poker game with millions on the table, it is because that is what the networks and just about everybody else are doing, gambling. Bets are hedged which is why shooting schedules are tight and producers are expected to trim costs wherever possible. Breaking Bad was filmed in Albuquerque because the producers were offered a tax break. Originally the song ‘Crying in The Chapel’ was wanted for the scene where Jesse is introduced to heroin. The producers deemed as too expensive the fee for using the song. This was not the number one top dollar version by Elvis Presley but the original by the respected but not that famous Orioles.
The agents of the actors are not so parsimonious or not with the money of other people. Bryan Cranston earned $225,000 per episode. He may, though, have invested some of that money into the production of Breaking Bad. Highly paid or not the actors would have felt the pressure from working to budgets that were cramped elsewhere. In the 62 episodes of Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul yells ‘bitch‘ 54 times. Bryan Cranston killed 199 people. More was at stake than making the next batch of meth. No wonder they were all so edgy.
Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.