Brow Beat

Why Don’t Brits Watch Breaking Bad?

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in a promotional photo for Breaking Bad

Photo by Frank Ockenfels/AMC

This past Sunday, Breaking Bad’s Season 5 premiere drew nearly 3 million viewers to AMC, making it the show’s most-watched episode. Granted, A&E’s Western procedural Longmire outdrew the show by 1.5 million viewers, and Lifetime’s Army Wives reached 500,000 more.* Breaking Bad at least beat USA’s Political Animals and HBO’s The Newsroom—and, among advertiser-coveted 18 to 49-year-olds, it outperformed all the cable shows in its Sunday-at-10-p.m. time slot.

The show’s return was also heralded by critics with almost universal praise. Slate welcomed it back with a 10-minute “here’s what you missed” video, a slick interactive feature, a mash note to Skyler White, and a TV Club. In other words, the full Mad Men love bomb.

Meanwhile, over in my native Britain, the show hasn’t even got a broadcast home. As Lorna Cooper explained at MSN UK, two channels have tried it—FX in 2008 and Channel 5USA in 2009—and both failed to find an audience. In its initial airing on FX, Breaking Bad managed “consolidated ratings of around 120,000 viewers.” Dismal numbers. Seasons 3 and 4 have never been shown by a U.K. broadcaster.

What’s going on? Start with the show’s premise. For Brits, who have relied for decades on the National Health Service—where money never changes hands for medical care—the thought of someone turning to crime in order to pay for cancer treatment is more far-fetched than a body-switching time lord.

Then again, Brits do love lording it over Americans, so you’d think they’d watch for the schadenfreude alone.

When I wrote about Mad Men’s abysmal U.K. ratings several months ago, British readers told me they’d lost faith in their broadcast networks. Too many shows had been moved behind paywalls or simply disappeared between seasons. They didn’t want to get hooked on a new show, only to have it suddenly become unavailable. Instead, they waited for the DVD box sets to be released and watched on their own timetable.

Season 4 of Breaking Bad will arrive in Britain this October, and the first three seasons are currently available on for between £11 and £18 each, which, as best as I can recall from my most recent U.K. visit, is about the cost of a bus ticket over there. Apparently, DVDs are one of the few things that are more or less the same price in both countries. I guess they can afford their generally crazy prices because they’re not worrying about going broke if they break a leg.

Or perhaps they’re watching a U.S. feed. Last month, the Guardian’s Charlie Brooker called Breaking Badthe best crime drama ever made.” He went on to confess, “I only mention it in the vague hope you’ll go out and buy the DVD in such numbers that some enterprising U.K. network will consider broadcasting the fifth season, thereby saving me the trouble of illegally downloading it.”

*Correction, July 18, 2012: This article originally and incorrectly stated that Longmire airs on TNT.

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