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'Breaking Bad' series finale breaks records for ratings and piracy

Bryan Cranston Breaking Bad (PUBLICITY STILL)

Last night the television series Breaking Bad came to an end, and the numbers prove the show had become a true cultural phenomenon in its last months. According to network AMC, 10.3 million viewers tuned in to watch the end of Walter White's story, a record high for the program, and an increase of more than 300 percent over the season finale last year. "Breaking Bad is simply unique," AMC president Charlie Collier said in a statement. "It all starts with Vince Gilligan who really only ever asked for one thing — the opportunity to end the show on his own terms."

Better than 'Dexter,' shy of 'The Sopranos'

It's a staggering number that demonstrates just how much momentum the show has gained. By way of comparison, only 6.1 million viewers tuned in for Showtime's Dexter finale earlier this month, and the Breaking Bad numbers even crept near the ratings for the finale of HBO's former heavyweight The Sopranos. 11.9 million people watched the controversial finale to David Chase's mafia drama in 2007. For a broader, broadcast network reference point, ABC's Lost finale had 13.5 million viewers three years ago.

The cultural conversation was in full swing on Twitter as well. According to AMC, 1.24 million tweets from over 601,000 different users referenced the show while the finale was broadcast on the east and west coasts of the US. The activity hit a peak of 22,373 tweets per minute just as the first showing began, with series star Bryan Cranston's thank you to fans retweeted over 52,000 times.

Viewers watching Breaking Bad through illegitimate means also wasted no time in viewing the finale. According to TorrentFreak, the episode was downloaded by more than 500,000 people in the first 12 hours after it aired, with 18 percent of downloads originating in Australia. The United States and the UK rounded out the top three countries pirating the show. While the number was a record for Vince Gilligan's show, it proved no match for Game of Thrones, which had its season premiere downloaded over a million times in less than a day.

All told, it's a tremendously successful conclusion to the series, and a reminder yet again that amazing things are possible if unique shows are given time to develop. For AMC, however, the question now turns to how it's going to replicate that kind of success. The spin-off series Better Call Saul won't likely garner the same kind of rabid following as the original Breaking Bad, but the network already has plenty of promising projects in development.

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