AMC's "Breaking Bad," one week after picking up the top Emmy drama prize, capped its meteoric ratings rise Sunday by surging to series highs in its finale -- despite facing formidable season premieres on ABC, CBS, Fox and Showtime.
There was no stopping fans from watching the show live Sunday (or at least same-night, thanks to DVRs), as the conclusion to Walter White's odyssey was watched by an average audience of 10.3 million, according to Nielsen, up 3.7 million (or 56%) from its penultimate episode of the previous week (6.6 million).
In adults 18-49, "Breaking Bad" did a huge 5.4 rating (or roughly 6.7 million viewers), putting it ahead of all broadcast premiere-week programs with the exception of CBS' "The Big Bang Theory."
Though it couldn't quite reach the levels of AMC's megahit "The Walking Dead," which wrapped its most recent season with 12.4 million (and a 6.4 in the demo), the series finale of "Breaking Bad" delivered nearly three times the audience of the most-watched "Mad Men" episode to date (3.5 million for its fifth-season premiere), and more than times that AMC show's largest 18-49 rating.
Among all cable series finales, "Breaking Bad" ranks third, behind only HBO's "Sopranos" in 2007 (11.9 million) and "Sex and the City" in 2004 (10.6 million). USA's "Monk" wrapped with 9.4 million in 2009, and TNT's "Closer" closed with 9.1 million last year.
Of course, it seems unlikely that anything in today's fragmented media world will approach the all-time biggest finales like "MASH" in 1983 (105.9 million), "Cheers" in 1993 (80.4 million) and "Seinfeld" in 1998 (76.3 million).
Sunday's audience was certainly larger those delivered earlier this year by the broadcast finales of long-running shows "The Office" (5.7 million), "Private Practice" (5.3 million) and "30 Rock" (4.8 million).
Most successful veteran series peak in their third or fourth season, but "Breaking Bad" is a clear exception.
It was barely hanging on in its first season in 2008, averaging just 1.2 million viewers, according to live-plus same day Nielsen estimates. It didn't move the needle much until 2011, when it averaged 1.9 million. It then spiked to 2.6 million for its abbreviated eight-episode run in 2012 -- spurred by off-season streaming of the show on Netflix -- before exploding this year with an average audience of 5.4 million per episode heading into last night.
Similarly in adults 18-49, its 0.5 average for its first season had grown to 1.3 last year and then more than doubled to a 2.7 this year.
When counting full-week DVR playback, "Breaking Bad's" per-episode average this season prior to its finale jumps from a 2.6 to a 3.9 in the 18-49 demo and from about 5.2 million total viewers to 7.6 million. In adults 18-34, it has surged from a 3.1 in same-night numbers to a 5.0 average with a week of DVR playback -- ten times the 0.5 that it did for its series premiere in 2008.
Airing after the "Breaking Bad" finale on Sunday, discussion show "Talking Bad" drew 4.4 million viewers, including 2.9 million adults 18-49.
Related stories'Breaking Bad' Final Episode Illegally Downloaded 500,000 Times in 12 HoursReturning Shows Take a Tumble On Busy Sunday NightTV Review: 'The Walking Dead' 2013 Variety Media, LLC, a subsidiary of Penske Business Media; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLCCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun