By Freddie Moore

I arrived at Union Hall for the premiere screening of Breaking Bad’s final season at 8:34 P.M., four minutes after doors had opened. The bouncer asked whether I was there for the screening or for dinner, and as soon as I answered, he told me, “We’re filled up to capacity. People have been lining up since 6:30 to get in for this.”

With roughly 20 minutes to spare before the premiere began, I attempted to speed-walk a mile to Halyards, the nearest bar I could think of that was also screening Breaking Bad. A couple outside warned me about the crowding, and although Halyards was letting people in, the audience was packed in so tight that viewers were squeezed right up against the projector screen. Everyone had staked their spots. There literally wasn’t any room.

The crowd at Halyards; note the twisted face of the blonde on the left (Credit: Photo by author)

After it was clear that there was no way I was getting in anywhere, I went home. It was a moment of total defeat, but I shared the Breaking Bad premiere (which I had luckily DVRd) with my boyfriend, and we enjoyed the show the old fashioned way: huddled together on a couch.

That night, Breaking Bad grossed its largest audience ever, reaching 5.9 million viewers — a 100 percent increase from the 2.9 million fans who tuned in for last year’s premiere. More than 750,000 tweets went out about the show on the day of the premiere, and more than half of its viewers ranged from 18 to 49 years old, the key demographic across cable networks. By any measure, the premiere was huge. 

In the age of Netflix, torrenting and binge watching, it’s easy to romanticize the past. It’s hard not to be nostalgic for the Golden Age of Television, when viewers all tuned in at the same time, transfixed by a narrative shared with up to hundreds of millions. (For comparison’s sake: Almost 21 times more people tuned in for the season finale of M*A*S*H in 1983 than did for Breaking Bad’s latest season premiere.)

What we have today is, obviously, different — but TV screenings, like the one at Union Hall, where people lined up for two hours ahead of the time, illustrate that TV still brings people together. The many modes of watching TV may have changed, but audiences still get excited for shows to air and they come even closer together to enjoy them.

Such social TV-viewing parties have been on the rise in cities like New York, Chicago, Portland and Columbus, in part because less and less people below the age of 30 are shelling out for cable TV. Over the past decade, there has been a 50 percent decline of TV cable viewership, with younger demographics turning to the internet for their favorite TV shows. After all, why pay for cable when you can receive the same programming for free by torrenting it or have it instantly on demand from Netflix? But there’s a catch that comes with this logic: When a series that’s still on-air like Breaking Bad wins a large following, those without cable must wait, at the least, until the new episode ends to torrent it (or wait months until the entire season is finally up on Netflix). Some viewers might have the patience, but many fans have found a workaround: public TV-viewing parties.

(Credit: Image from Flickr user Connie Ma; used with Creative Commons license)

Large, popular TV-viewing parties may have been borne by a generation too cheap, too broke or too demanding to pay for cable, but other interesting things have resulted from it. Instead of sharing a narrative experience separated by the walls of each person’s home, television viewers today are cramming together to share the shows they love with strangers. This can be terrifying for some people (and irritating if you get stuck viewing the back of someone’s head all night), but some fans make the most of it. Many of the viewing parties at local music venues and bars go beyond simply screening TV shows; they celebrate them. Fans get to geek out for their favorite series, answering trivia and even buying show-inspired drinks.

And this isn’t the only way people are becoming more social with television. In August of 2012, Ericsson, a multinational telecommunication company, found that 62 percent of people use social media while watching TV, and roughly half of those people discuss what they are currently watching (rather than idly using Facebook while sitting through reruns). Research has also found that 52 percent of viewers had used a “second screen” (cellphone, tablet, laptop, etc.) to learn more about a TV show while watching, and one-third of survey participants said they were more likely to watch a show live if there was a great deal of social buzz around it.

The internet has fueled TV culture in a way that viewers could never experience in the past. Cult TV culture has made its way through social media posts and GIFs across Tumblr; TV and pop culture blogs feed fans with extended commentary, insight and “easter eggs,” small yet mighty details that augment the viewing experience. Online cult followings have also allowed for a wave of nostalgia for ‘80s and ‘90s television shows, like Buffy, Dr. Who, Star Trek, My So-Called Life and more. TV stars have also increasingly made appearances at fan-based events, like Comic Con.

Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston removing a Walter White mask at Comic Con (Credit: Image from Flickr user Gage Skidmore; used with Creative Commons license)

Social media — although often full of spoilers — has allowed people to not only discuss television shows with their close friends, but to share their experiences with fans around the world. The Game of Throne’s “Red Wedding” episode is a prime example of how powerful this can be. I reacted viscerally to it, yelling at the screen in disbelief (and yes, I cried). It was a kind of mourning I had never experienced from watching television before. Not only was the episode talked about all over social media and various blogs, but there were YouTube videos of people reacting just the way that I had:

This kind of shared experience not only brings fans together, but it reminds us what is to sympathize (even if only to look back and laugh at ourselves for how seriously attached we can become to a show and its characters). This is proof that television viewers are still a community in an age when critics claim the internet is driving audiences apart.

The internet may be changing the way viewers enjoy television, but it’s not the end of TV. As someone who is part of the generation that is “killing cable,” I still believe it’s doubtful that we will stop watching television shows altogether, even if the traditional way of viewing them dies out. After all, my generation grew up on television. It was the way I connected with people. Whether I was watching Nickelodeon as a child or talking about The O.C. with my high school crush, television has always been both an escape and a connective tissue to others — and those aspects of television are much more important than the survival cable as a means of distribution. Methods of watching TV (which have been ever-changing since its arrival in the 20th century) matter less than the end goal of any great television show: to tell a good story, to keep an audience wanting more, to make them empathize, to give them something to talk about with each other.

This past weekend, I arrived at Halyards at 7:55 — five minutes before the start of the Breaking Bad trivia that preceded the episode premiere. My boyfriend and I claimed out our seats, and I ordered a blue meth-inspired cocktail, which I nursed while playing trivia. There were a few no-brainers, like “What is the name of Gus’s chicken franchise?”, but many of the questions were geared towards hardcore fans who could answer questions like, “What is the best-selling air freshening fragrance at A1 Car Wash?”

Even though we were now three episodes into the season, I overheard two strangers gossiping about the premiere screening, the one filled to capacity. One of the guys complained, saying that he got there a few minutes before the episode only to find that he was up against a wall of people. “People love to go out for drinks, but they’re too cheap to buy cable,” he said. He had come all the way from 33rd Street in Brooklyn for the trivia and left halfway through the screening.

Halyard’s “Blue Sky” cocktail, named after the street name for the 99.1% pure crystal meth that Walter White and Jesse Pinkman create in Breaking Bad

But there were many who stayed, who laughed and gasped and even screamed at the screen. Between commercials, people turned to everyone around them in disbelief, speculating about what was to come next, then quieting as soon as the episode returned. With only five episodes of Breaking Bad left in the entire show, you could feel the tension at Halyard’s. And as the episode snapped to a close, all at once the crowd let out a howl — the kind elicited when a story leaves you gripping the sides of your seat. It was the sound of a generation of television viewers who are alive and well.

Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in unFold, The Leaf Unturned and Italics Mine. As a former co-president of SUNY Purchase’s Cheese Club, she’s a big time foodie who knows her cheese.