BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last Sunday, AMC aired the final episode of Breaking Bad.
BRYAN CRANSTON AS WALT: It’s over, and I needed a proper goodbye.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you haven’t seen it, we won’t spoil it for you, but if you’ve been on Twitter or Facebook, or basically anywhere online since the finale aired, the reaction was inescapable. Twitter said that fans tweeted about the show 100,000 times a day in the run up to Sunday's finale. Facebook said there have been 23 million interactions about Breaking Bad since August, created by 11 million people. More than 10 million viewed the finale live. How many more like me time shifted, I don't know, but one thing is clear: The internet was a Breaking Bad magnet. And studies show that online discussion not only serves audiences, it builds them.
Kevin Slavin is an assistant professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology co-founder of Everybody at Once. He says that social media have returned something to entertainment that was always there, until recorded television. It gave us back to us.
KEVIN SLAVIN: You have to remember that television started off not as radio with pictures, but rather as theater in your home. Basically, it was a live broadcast. It said, okay, something's happening somewhere and we’re going to connect you live to this theater experience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let’s talk about that. I remember when I was a kid watching reruns of the old George Burns Show.
KEVIN SLAVIN: Mm-hmm –
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he – he’d come out in front of the curtain, he’d talk to an audience.
JACK BENNY: How do you like that, Jack Benny stealing my ongoing joke? I was gonna take a swing at him but I didn’t want to hit a man with gray hair.
But wait ‘til I catch him without it.
KEVIN SLAVIN: That was something that actually people were very familiar with for the early years of television, and it really changed when they could start actually recording shows and start to edit them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It must make the storytelling better.
KEVIN SLAVIN: It definitely made the storytelling better. You know, Breaking Bad would be a really lousy show if it was live.
But what they discovered [LAUGHS], quite by accident, is that when they did that, their ratings in television started to go down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because there was no - audience depicted in the experience?
KEVIN SLAVIN: There was no sense of the audience, and what – and you didn’t need to necessary see them, but there's no sense that anybody else was there. And there's not really a model for that. You know, even think about early radio also had audiences. There was a shift in the technology that allowed us to remove the audience. And it was authentically strange, and a bunch of people sort of rushed in to figure out what do we do, how do we deal with this?
So the first thing they invented was the applause sign. And sometimes, if a joke didn't land in the live studio, they would play back the sound of laughter to make it sound like it was a little bit more ambitious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this brings us to Charlie Douglass.
KEVIN SLAVIN: Charlie Douglass, who was the sound engineer who realized, actually, as long as you’re sweetening [?] the audience, maybe they don’t need to be there, in the first place. swing in the audience may be little need to be there in the first place.
And he invented basically the laugh track.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I saw some videos on YouTube.
KEVIN SLAVIN: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They were clips from Friends, but the laugh track had been removed.
KEVIN SLAVIN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In one of them, Phoebe says one of her classic punch lines.
JENNIFER ANISTON AS RACHEL: Hey, do you guys wanna go see a movie?
DAVID SCHWIMMER AS ROSS: Well yeah, why not?
RACHEL: You, Pheebs?
LISA KUDROW AS PHOEBE: No thanks, I’ve already seen one.
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KEVIN SLAVIN: In those pauses, you realize how artificial it was to even stand there and wait for a laugh that had to be inserted later, that there's a vast kind of architecture and infrastructure in the production of television just to accommodate a fake audience, which is kind of amazing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s a lot easier to fake an audience for comedy than it is for drama.
KEVIN SLAVIN: Oh yeah – right, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So they never have.
KEVIN SLAVIN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But is that because that experiences is less communal anyway? I ask it because it brings us back to Breaking Bad.
KEVIN SLAVIN: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do people need to talk about the TV they’re watching, while they're watching it?
KEVIN SLAVIN: Well, I think that people need to do that for the same reasons that they needed to hear fake laughter for 60 years, which is that there’s a part of the human brain, the limbic system, that’s basically wired to look for meaning in the meaning that other people find. And this isn’t just television, this is all things. This is healthcare systems. This is everything. And now we have these tools – Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, BlackBerry Messenger - that allow us to actually be able to sort of see each other, in a way, for this moment, and actually participate in this communal expression of surprise, horror, laughter, etc. And I think this is, of all of the major shifts in the technologies of entertainment, the ability of the audience to see the audience around themselves is the greatest. It’s much bigger than 3-D, it’s much bigger than a high definition. It's actually the restoration of the sense of the audience around us. And I think that something that nobody was trying to build, and yet it’s something that everybody was trying to find.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But today, we can set our DVR to watch a show later in the day or download it for tomorrow or wait for it to go on Netflix and watch it a year later, so what role can social media play in satisfying this need for an audience, if our viewing is so out of sync with each other?
KEVIN SLAVIN: If you grew up in an era where there were only a few networks and only certain shows, that sense of sort of participating in something with everyone around you was really, really important, and all that got left behind the minute we started time shifting; everything became on demand. And what we see is that people are using these on-demand technologies to run and run and run and run and run, to catch up to everybody else who is having a conversation.
Breaking Bad is such a good example because just before the premiere of Season 5, Netflix made available all of Season 4 online. Fifty thousand people watched all 13 episodes from Season 4 in one day. Fifty thousand people is not a lot of people, but think about what’s involved there. Fifty thousand people spent 13 hours out of one day, using all the tools that allow us to consume things on our own time, but only in order to enjoy them together.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kevin, thank you very much.
KEVIN SLAVIN: Thanks to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kevin Slavin is an assistant professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and co-founder of Everybody at Once.