Last Sunday, I did something I haven’t done in a long time: Watch an episode of television as it aired — commercials and all.
Please note: This article contains MASSIVE spoilers for the 5th season of “Breaking Bad.” You’ve been warned.
For the past two months, AMC has prefaced each new episode of the critically-acclaimed drama Breaking Bad by alerting viewers to the existence of BreakingBadStorySync.com: A second-screen experience for each episode, timed to update with the show if you skipped the DVR and watched live.
Second screen experiences are nothing new, but they’re something I’ve always primarily associated with award shows and lighter fare. I was curious as to what a second-screen experience for a gritty cable drama like Breaking Bad would be like. So for the 2012 finale, I made sure I was home in time, with my laptop on the couch with me.
Powered by the real-time web platform Echo (whose website was down as of writing — Google cache here), Breaking Bad Story Sync proved to be a relatively entertaining mix of photos, video, polls and flashbacks, cleverly tied to the on-screen action — a great way to engage fans. But it was also, at times, a crass effort to get people watching ads — while watching ads, on top of ads.
The episode, “Gliding Over All,” began with anti-hero Walter White (Bryan Cranston) gazing intently at a fly — Story Sync began by reminding us about the 3rd season episode where Walt was super-obsessed with a fly in the lab…
…before moving on, a few minutes later, to poll viewers on whether or not the shocking murder which ended last week’s episode was necessary.
(For not the last time, the poll showed that an overwhelming majority of people are no longer rooting for Walt.)
One more poll popped up before we reached the first commercial break of the episode, at which point I expected to see some bonus content to keep those normally used to a DVR experience from getting twitchy. Instead, we got this:
There were three more ads for the SRT over the course of the Story Sync experience, turning my two-screen viewing experience into two screens of commercials. In addition, when I clicked to watch a video replay of a violent prisoner-shanking montage (which was the StorySync update immediately following that montage airing on TV), the video began with a 30-second pre-roll ad — for Breaking Bad.
Overall, the technology powering the service performed well — there were no lags in updates, no loading issues, and the interactive elements were glitch-free. I also liked the subtle “tock” noise which indicated an update — just enough to alert you without being distracting.
Beyond the technology, though, watching with Story Sync had two strong benefits: First, the polls and quizzes, which at times lacked subtlety:
But did offer some fun interactivity:
Second: The flashbacks and reminders of past episodes, which were timed perfectly with the on-screen action. If you’ve never watched Breaking Bad, know that it’s a show which loves thematic callbacks and inside jokes, a fact which Story Sync celebrated all episode long:
The biggest drawback to a second-screen experience on a drama like Breaking Bad is that like many sophisticated dramas, there are often big moments that are played quietly. Which is to say that I was looking at my stupid computer when, on screen, it was revealed that Walt had brought along his trusty vial of ricin poison to his meeting with a potentially expendable contact — a big character and plot moment, and one that I completely missed.
In fact, I didn’t learn about it until the next day, when I read one of the many blog recaps of the episode. Instead, I thought that the Story Sync update which followed that scene was foreshadowing ricin’s appearance.
Despite that unfortunate glitch, I overall found the whole experience intriguing, especially those moments which proved that whoever was behind the experience had some snark in them:
Second-screen viewing is definitely not a fad, and leaning into the curve of distracted audiences isn’t a bad strategy, especially when you can also simultaneously encourage real-time engagement. And given that Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has said he’s worried about how DVRing affects the current TV business model, it’s hardly a surprise that this show is one of the first to play with this combination of elements.
The next time we might see Story Sync again will be when The Walking Dead returns for Season 3 this October (it originally launched during Dead‘s second season last spring). But while my first experience was interesting, I’m not sure it was compelling enough to make me forego using my DVR for future AMC programming — especially given the additional ads that came with it.
Perhaps it’s enough to just watch a TV show — especially when it’s one of the best shows on television. Perhaps I’m more old-fashioned than I thought.