When Sons of Anarchy premiered on FX in Sept. 2008, the lauded and popular dramas that had defined the channel's brand — The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me — were all nearing their ends. And though FX was enjoying success on the comedy side with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, its attempts to find gripping, long-lasting new dramas had largely flopped: Dirt, The Riches, and Thief had all died quickly. (Damages was an exception, but the Glenn Close legal thriller was never a blockbuster; eventually, FX canceled it after three seasons, after which DirecTV aired two more.)
The biker club drama, Sons of Anarchy, created by Kurt Sutter, was in the same vein as The Shield and Rescue Me: shows in which tough men in violent worlds explore (and represent) the problematics of masculinity. When it showed signs of catching on, FX renewed it quickly, announcing plans for a second season only five episodes into Season 1.
But compared to the numbers the show now draws, those first-season ratings were puny: Sons of Anarchy averaged 2.2 million viewers back then. Now, four episodes into the show's sixth season, it has drawn an average audience of 4.8 million in Live+Same Day ratings (meaning, viewers who watch the show live or almost live). That's an increase from last season's 4.4 million average. When you factor in time-shifted viewers, the first two episodes' Live+7 ratings (viewers who have watched them within a week) have brought in 7.9 million.
During Breaking Bad's final eight episodes, part of the phenomenon was watching viewers who had caught up on the show, which had never been a hit for AMC, suddenly amass into a huge, noisy scrum of a live audience every week. It was singular and unprecedented.
But there are other examples of the same pattern occurring more gradually with shows that were already doing well. Sons of Anarchy is clearly one. After its third season, which had dipped a little in the ratings, the show was made available to Hulu, iTunes, and Netflix users. It's grown in every subsequent season, and has become the most popular show in FX's history. As it's gotten bigger, the composition of the Sons of Anarchy audience hasn't changed; it's just expanded. For instance, it's the rare scripted show that's more male-skewing than female (the viewership is 55% male) and more than two-thirds of its viewers are in the valuable 18 to 49 demographic. Popular broadcast network dramas such as CBS's NCIS or ABC's Grey's Anatomy have much larger audiences than Sons of Anarchy, but they're not doing that much better among 18 to 49 year-olds, the age group many advertisers favor.
Sons of Anarchy is in what is likely its penultimate season (though there is some wiggle room there), and Sutter has been making the show even darker and more violent than it ever was. And it was pretty dark and violent from the start! If Season 7 does turn out to be its last, look for Sons of Anarchy to have Breaking Bad-like momentum as it draws to a close, with each episode out-rating the previous ones in live viewers.
That isn't until next year, though. Until then, the SAMCRO nation will worry about who in the cast is safe (very few), relish the show's second Entertainment Weekly cover this week, laugh that star Charlie Hunnam will soon be seen as Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey, and rage about Sons of Anarchy's continuous snubs from the Television Academy when it comes to Emmy nominations.
Or, if you want the Cliffs Notes of what's going on with Sons of Anarchy, just keep an eye on Sutter's always entertaining and vitriolic Twitter feed. That's on 52 weeks a year.
Update, 10/12: We will no longer be laughing about Charlie Hunnam playing Christian Grey. On Oct. 12, Universal Pictures and Focus Features released the following statement: "The filmmakers of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and Charlie Hunnam have agreed to find another male lead given Hunnam's immersive TV schedule which is not allowing him time to adequately prepare for the role of Christian Grey."