Elvis Presley

BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

12 BREAD, CHEDDAR OR A LOT OF POTATOES

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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BREAKING OUT: BREAKING BAD

10  1999-2013

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The period from 1999 to 2013 was a golden age for American television.  Without the shift in American TV programming that occurred in 1999 there would have been no Breaking Bad.  Walter White would still be a schoolteacher.  Well, who knows what happens to characters outside the heads of their creators.   

One night in 1981 I was heading towards downtown Atlanta.  On the way Wolfman Jack played early rock ‘n’ roll hits on the car radio.   The United States had fabulous music memories back then and needed them.  The television was awful.  Prior to the drive downtown I had sat on a motel bed and waited for someone who took longer to dress than me.   While I waited I checked the schedule for the TV on a Saturday night in hip Atlanta.  Fantasy Island began at 8pm.  Charley’s Angels followed at nine, and The Love Boat occupied what was left of the American mind.  Some viewers must have gone crazy watching what was pure and uninterrupted pap.  Elvis Presley found an alternative.  During his final days Elvis played Monty Python tapes and popped pills.  Unlike Elvis, not everyone had DVD players or corrupt doctors supplying an unlimited number of amphetamines.  That came later for the American working class.

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The revolution in American television was made possible by various factors but was always inevitable.  The programmes had to improve.  American TV was not all bad.  Sports programmes had viewer appeal, and the comedy sitcoms employed writers that could deliver slick one-liners.  There were some moments in its drama output but nothing that could be described as quality.  The Rockford Files had charm but was also simple escapism.  The pilot of The Night Stalker was a fine horror tale but the TV series soon became tired.  The rest of American TV was dire.  Dependent for their revenue on advertisers who wanted programmes that offended no one the main networks were conservative and risk averse.

HBO arrived in 1972 and carrying a different business model.  The cable channel collected subscriptions from viewers and delivered exclusive sporting events and a bigger selection of movies.  Almost a quarter of a century after it was launched someone at HBO realised that the subscriptions guaranteed revenue whether an individual programme attracted an audience or not.  The movies and sporting events also ensured some advertising income.   Besides being able to take chances HBO had other advantages.  Censorship on network American TV was restrictive.  As a pay-per-view network, HBO could insist on the rules that applied to the Hollywood movies its subscribers had paid to see.  HBO viewers saw naked women, heard the kind of expletives favoured by American Presidents and witnessed lots of violence.   Before 1997 the fashion had been for TV series with seasons of 22 episodes.  Reducing the number to thirteen required a smaller financial investment.   The technical teams had also become more adept.  Versatile cameras meant a more polished product could be achieved in the statutory eight days allowed for filming a series episode.   Neither did camera film have to be overexposed.  The lighting crews would never equal the best of Hollywood cinema but they understood shade and ambience, something that had been avoided in the previous decades.   Audiences wanted their TV programmes to look like movies, especially if they were paying for them.

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After deciding to broadcast original material HBO was obliged to raise standards.  Without any recent precedent in American television for quality drama the network gave freedom to its writers.  Previously scriptwriters had been referred to as ‘schmucks with Underwoods’.   Vince Gilligan was the executive producer or showrunner of Breaking Bad.  Like other showrunners, Gilligan is a writer.  He had to operate within a budget decided by the AMC network but Gilligan could also ensure that the writing succeeded and what finished on the screen captured the cinematic potential of that writing.   Only a talented writer with experience of collaborative working can do that.

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Although the non-subscription channels relied exclusively on advertising revenue they learned how to imitate HBO.  The Shield was a gritty crime drama from the FX network, a cop show that deterred most of the advertising agencies.  But the folks at FX were clever and realised that they only needed to appeal to a small percentage of advertising agencies.   The advertisements that interrupted The Shield belonged to a niche market and promoted products aimed at young and middle-aged men.

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It all meant that male American heroes could now lose their temper.    There had to be a reason for those expletives.  If the heroes were more complex, they were mainly male.  Damages and Homeland arrived in the following century.  Both failed to maintain the standards of The Sopranos and The Wire but at least the main protagonists were women.

The Sopranos and The Wire have been described as modern equivalents of Balzac and Proust.   In Breaking Bad The Official Book the editor David Thomson refers to Chekhov.  The creative revolution did unleash talent but these are pointless comparisons between apples and oranges.  It is doubtful that Vince Gilligan is capable of anything as note perfect as The Seagull but even Chekhov would have flagged if he had needed to deliver 62 episodes of Breaking Bad.  All that can be said is that American TV showrunners create shows that take a long time to watch and the books of Balzac and Proust require heavy lifting

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Rather than settle for harmless fantasy the best writers in the golden age of American TV were intent on revealing a troubled way of life.  The best of the programmes from the golden age introduced Americans that were violent, sexually complicated, addicted to drugs and materialism, and living in loveless or oppressive families. The potential of these anxious Americans was also distorted by an unrecognised class system.    Excess, amorality and irresponsibility defined this decadent American empire.  But the weaknesses of modern America were explored mainly through character.  Walter White in Breaking Bad becomes a criminal in order to pay for his medical bills.  Nowhere in Breaking Bad is it suggested that perhaps America should have an alternative health system.  The Wire had a political agenda but it operated within the crime genre which meant that the message was lost on most of the audience.  Conservative MPs in Britain assumed that The Wire condemned the poor for their behaviour and supported Tory arguments for more extreme neoliberal policies.  Actor and old Etonian Dominic West was interviewed about working on The Wire.  West had no idea that the TV show was intended as left wing polemic.

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The American TV programmes that appeared after 1999 deserve praise but what had happened previously in British television cannot be ignored.  It has not helped that the Thatcher neoliberal hegemony contributed to the decline of the BBC as a creative force.  American TV from the golden age is accomplished but when compared to the best of British television it still feels timid.  Over 40 years ago The Naked Civil Servant had an unapologetic gay hero that protested against traditional gender identities.  In the 1960s, Cathy Come Home and the other films of Ken Loach exposed the uneven economic rewards of a lopsided British class system.  Boys From The Blackstuff had a thick eared sensibility but it remains a principled primal scream against Thatcherism and the nightmare that followed.   Armchair Theatre in the 1960s not only utilised great British theatrical talent that included Billie Whitelaw and Harold Pinter but also heralded the defiance of ordinary people, a resistance which would be echoed and amplified by the arrival of The Beatles.  The low budget Z Cars may appear modest today but as a paid up member of the new zeitgeist it rattled the British establishment and was condemned by the British Press.

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Madmen was not the only American series to present real and complex adult characters.  British television at its best, though, matched polemic with entertainment in a way that is still beyond American television.  History and the moment are important.  British TV was at its best when there was left wing hope.  Leeds United was the story of a strike, and its black and white photography paid homage to Eisenstein.  Written by Colin Welland the programme was unequivocal agitprop but also hilarious.  Of course Leeds United benefited from a faith in the worth and humour of the Northern working class, a faith that has since been lost.  But even without left wing polemic British TV has had programmes that are incomparable.   Nothing on American TV is equal to the adaptation of the Charles Dickens short story The Signalman, not even the best episodes of The Twilight Zone.  And for those who want serious ambition there is Talking To Strangers written by John Hopkins, a six hour forensic and epic investigation into a family whose restrained discourse and polite British manners do nothing to prevent its four members becoming emotional cripples.

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Recent American TV has exposed how people behave in a decadent empire but the people making the programmes are also shaped by that decadence.  Witnessing the work of not to be missed talent has been intoxicating but the same creators have been too ready to approve of villainy and to relish rather than criticise excess squalor and opulence.  Modern American TV programmes have indulged licence and avoided digging beneath and beyond familiar genres to analyse the society that is making their admittedly interesting characters so miserable.   This may sound harsh but what was once an explosion of creativity soon became routine programming.  If no one should be surprised, we do have essential series like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire and Madmen. 

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.