Almost all avid television viewers have strong opinions when it comes to series finales. From a creative perspective, TV critics, bloggers and fans have written countless lists of the best and worst series finales ever (while opinions vary, most agree that The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Newhart rank among the best, Seinfeld and Roseanne among the worst).
TV showrunners feel the need to end their series in a fulfilling way for fans, but are also under pressure from advertisers to increase viewership and maximize advertising spend in the lead-up to the finale. It can be a tough balancing act to pull off.
Dexter meets its maker
After eight seasons, Dexter wraps up its hugely successful run this month. Since Dexter airs on Showtime, a pay-cable network in the United States, the show’s producers don’t have to worry about advertising spend.
That said, Dexter is Showtime’s strongest brand and has been used to launch the new series Ray Donovan, whose pilot episode (which aired after last summer’s Dexter season premiere) delivered 1.35 million viewers – a 25-percent increase over the series premiere of Emmy-winning series Homeland two years ago.
The series has gone on to perform well on the back of Dexter’s denouement, and so a gratifying and buzzworthy conclusion for Dexter could be key to Showtime’s continuing creative success.
The Sopranos finale backfires
In 2007, HBO’s The Sopranos concluded its run with one of the most surprising and hotly debated series finales in television history.
11.9 million viewers watched the finale on the premium cable network, accomplishing the rare feat of beating all of the broadcast networks’ programming except for America’s Got Talent on NBC.
Like Showtime, HBO didn’t need to worry about advertising spend for the finale, but it attempted to capitalize on the surge in viewership by launching John from Cincinnati, a new series from Deadwood creator David Milch, which premiered immediately following The Sopranos finale.
Viewers weren’t quite ready. The Sopranos finale ended with the screen suddenly cutting to black mid-scene, and staying dark for a full ten seconds before the credits rolled. Across the U.S., people screamed at their televisions, wondering if their cable went out at the most crucial moment.
Despite high expectations, the premiere of John from Cincinnati lost more than 8 million viewers from its lead-in of The Sopranos and was eventually cancelled.
Lost finds its mojo
While many factors led to John from Cincinnati’s cancellation, it’s hard to ignore the role that The Sopranos’ unconventional ending played in zapping the momentum of its heir apparent.
It’s a good thing The Sopranos aired on HBO: Imagine how angry an advertiser would have been to have paid for a spot that was ignored due to viewer outrage!
For the broadcast and cable networks, series finales come with great expectations and potentially high rewards. In 2010, ABC’s Lost finale promised to wrap up six seasons of complicated storylines and confusing island mythology.
Despite the fact that the series’ viewership had limped throughout the final season, ABC sought $900,000 per 30-second spot for the finale, demonstrating just how precious even a so-so series finale can be.
Will Breaking Bad finish strong?
The most buzzed-about series of the moment, Breaking Bad, is building to a satisfying creative conclusion this month – and breaking ratings records for basic cable network AMC.
The antepenultimate episode, which premiered last Sunday, left viewers stunned, has been described as one of the best hours of television ever and garnered 6.4 million viewers (it also inspired more than 600,000 tweets).
To capitalize on the series’ late-blooming audience, AMC split the fifth and final season into two parts. For its final eight episodes, Breaking Bad‘s viewership has seen a 102-percent increase over the first half of season five, which aired during the summer of 2012.
As Breaking Bad’s ratings continue to increase and shatter records each week, AMC is expected to increase its cost per 30-second spot for the September 29 finale,reaching rates that are more in line with the broadcast networks.
The final season of Breaking Bad could set the bar high for AMC’s highly anticipated final season of Mad Men, which is also scheduled to air in two halves over the next two years.
As James Hibberd from Entertainment Weekly notes, “Breaking Bad is teaching a master class on how to end a TV show.”