The return of Breaking Bad this summer drew headlines for its meteoric rise in the Nielsen ratings, transforming from a cult success to a breakout hit for AMC seemingly overnight. Many credited Netflix for this development, rightfully so, but I was struck that pieces like Andrew Wallenstein’s at Variety made no mention of Sons of Anarchy, which is arguably the first drama series to benefit significantly from Netflix in its continued—and trend-breaking for drama series—rise from season-to-season.
The reasons it hasn’t been mentioned range from the statistical (its increases have been more gradual) to the contextual (it isn’t in its final season) to the typical: for better or worse, depending on who you ask, Sons of Anarchy has slipped under the radar when it comes to the prestige drama trend. With Justified and The Americans more beloved by critics in FX’s lineup, and shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men seen as better representatives of the dark, masculine dramatic series trend, Sons of Anarchy has largely been left to grow its audience outside of conversations like Wallenstein’s that privilege those series deemed most important.
Sutter and his bosses at FX have been expecting these audience increases: Sutter continues to hold a “contest” to hold a special fan screening of an episode late in the season if ratings go up over the previous year, which is more a way of rewarding fans for sticking with and promoting the show than an actual contingency (I expect he’d find a way to hold the event regardless of whether or not ratings had gone up, as it wouldn’t be the first time he’s privileged his relationship with fans over an arbitrary number). Still, one increase that perhaps works against the ongoing trend—gradual 10-15% increases per season—is the fact that ratings for the season six premiere among women 18-49 and women 18-34 were up 35% and 43% respectively.
Variety’s AJ Marechal posed the possibility on Twitter that this could be chalked up to the casting of Sons star Charlie Hunnam in female-friendly franchise 50 Shades of Gray, but I’d argue that’s a web of causality we can’t possibly break down. That being said, the increase in female viewership does tie into discussions of the series’ streaming success, as well as its expansion in non-linear platforms with the online Anarchy Afterword series that debuted following the record-setting premiere.