Jerry Seinfeld’s decision to bow out gracefully after nine seasons could well spark a historic realignment of the network primetime race. For the first time in more than a decade, since before the heyday of “The Cosby Show” and “Cheers,” the Peacock web may lose its iron grip on Thursday nights.
In dollars and cents, the exit of “Seinfeld,” produced by Castle Rock TV, will cost NBC an estimated $200 million annually in advertising revenue, not to mention an invaluable platform for introducing “Must-See TV” candidates. And it leaves NBC in the unenviable position of having to negotiate a renewal deal for TV’s top-rated primetime series, “ER,” at a time when the network is losing the show that has been TV’s top-rated comedy series for the past three seasons.
As the oddly timed (perhaps deliberate on NBC’s part) news of “Seinfeld’s” retirement began to spread over the holiday weekend to vacationing industry exex, biz watchers zeroed in on three primary cliffhangers left to be resolved:
– Which show, or which studio, inherits the kingmaker’s slot?
– How high will the “ER” license fee go?
– How will other webs respond in the fall?
NBC execs declined to comment on the sea change over the weekend, as did many of their colleagues at rival webs and studios.
Alan Horn, chairman of Castle Rock Entertainment, said Sunday that the news was “a very emotional” moment for all the principals involved. “Castle Rock Entertainment is 10 years old — ‘Seinfeld’ is 9 years old. The series has been part of the development, the growth and the flourishing of our company more than anything else we’ve ever done,” Horn said. “It stands for the kind of quality we think our company represents. The fact that it has evolved into an icon of American television makes it all the more gratifying to have been a part of it, and all the more bittersweet the ending.”
Seinfeld is said to have broken the news to NBC prexy Bob Wright and General Electric chairman Jack Welch on Dec. 24, after discussing the matter at length earlier in the week with cast mates Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards. While the will-he-or-won’t-he question has dogged “Seinfeld” for the past few seasons, Castle Rock TV execs and many “Seinfeld” staffers were blindsided by the timing of the formal announcement.
“It’s been an incredible nine years and even now the show continues to break ratings records as viewers have made Thursday nights at 9 p.m. truly appointment television,” NBC said in a statement issued Dec. 26.
“To keep a show of this caliber at its peak is a great undertaking, and we respect Jerry’s decision that at the end of this season, it’s time to move on,” the statement said.
Show to sweep out in May
The final, possibly hourlong installment of “Seinfeld” will air during the May sweep. It’s sure to join the last segs of “Cheers” (1993), “The Cosby Show” (1992), “MASH” (1983) and other era-defining skeins in the pantheon of most-watched TV series finales.
The loss of a Thursday night sitcom anchor is a predicament NBC Entertainment prexy Warren Littlefield has faced before. In 1992, after Ted Danson decided to call for the last round of “Cheers,” NBC took a gamble and moved “Seinfeld” into the plum Thursday 9 p.m. slot. At the time, “Seinfeld” was far from slam-dunk status and the web had far less comedy bench strength than it enjoys today with such seasoned hits as “Frasier,” “Friends,” “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Mad About You.”
Those are all logical contenders for the 9 p.m. slot, although the web is still awaiting a decision on a seventh season of “Mad About You” from stars Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt.
Other contenders for the golden timeslot could be new projects that NBC has recently committed to either a Tuesday or Thursday launch next season: a single-mom comedy from the “Friends” trio of Bright/Kauffman/Crane, or a Paramount-produced sitcom starring Nathan Lane of Broadway and “The Birdcage” fame.
Wild cards in NBC’s reconstruction plans are ABC, CBS and Fox. For rival webs, Thursday has long been the province of heady dramas and newsmags as they tried to counterprogram NBC’s comedy and “ER” juggernaut. The last time a network other than NBC ruled Thursday nights was during the 1983-84 season when CBS was riding high with the action-adventure/soap block of “Magnum, P.I.,” “Simon & Simon” and “Knots Landing.”
Fox is said to be considering trying to establish a Thursday night comedy beachhead around the animated hit “King of the Hill,” which is sandwiched at 8:30 p.m. between “The Simpsons” and “The X-Files” on Sundays.
‘ER’ position strengthens
Most pressing on NBC’s agenda in the new year is sure to be the renewal of Warner Bros.’ “ER” for a fifth season and beyond. The process is expected to begin in earnest next month, and clearly, Warner Bros.’ bargaining position has been strengthened by the “Seinfeld” news.
The studio is rumored to be looking for a sizable increase to a $10 million per-episode license fee, but industry seers predict the pricetag will more realistically land between $5 million and $7 million.
“Seinfeld” spinoffs would likely be impossible without approval from Seinfeld and other exec producers. Castle Rock’s Horn said the company has had no talks with any “Seinfeld” cast members about spinoffs. Supporting cast members Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus and Richards have recently set in motion post-“Seinfeld” career plans.
Alexander has a TV production deal with Universal, and while he’s technically a free agent on the acting side, Universal is clearly interested in developing a show around Alexander. Louis-Dreyfus has been rumored to be mulling working with her husband, producer Brad Hall (“The Single Guy”), who recently signed a rich development pact with Spelling’s Big Ticket TV. Like Seinfeld himself, Richards’ future plans are less certain. Some predict Richards will try to distance himself from his TV persona’s wacko image by concentrating on features.
Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris, aka Mr. & Mrs. George Costanza, are believed to be talking with Castle Rock TV about doing a live-action series based on the husband-and-wife comic strip “The Lockhorns.”
Syndie gold mine
On the syndication front, the end of “Seinfeld’s” primetime run signals to Columbia TriStar’s syndie arm that its first round of syndication deals with 200-plus local TV stations expire in fall 2000 or fall 2001. Col TriStar is sure to command record-setting coin for the second cycle of “Seinfeld” renewal rights. “Seinfeld” has performed beyond all expectations since its 1995 syndie bow; the show is projected to generate about $1 billion in the first five years of its Monday-Friday rerun cycle.
That’s a far cry from the show’s inauspicious beginnings on July 5, 1989, during the network’s traditional summer viewing slump, as a half-hour spec dubbed “The Seinfeld Chronicles.”
After bowing as a series in May 1990, “Seinfeld” bounced all over NBC’s Wednesday and Thursday lineups over the next three years. At one low point in its history, “Seinfeld” was regularly being beaten by CBS’ William Conrad starrer “Jake and the Fatman.” The quirky “show about nothing” amassed just 18 episodes in its first three seasons, prompting Castle Rock TV prexy Glenn Padnick to joke that “at this rate, we’d hit syndication around the year 2010.”
But “Seinfeld” was crowned the heir apparent to “Cheers” in the spring of 1993, and it went into ratings and pop culture overdrive that fall. This season, the series has averaged nearly 32 million viewers each week, second only to “ER,” which owes no small measure of its early success to the audience delivered by “Seinfeld.”
“Seinfeld” also ranks as primetime’s most expensive comedy series, with a cast payroll topping $60 million this season. The supporting trio cleared $600,000 an episode this season after a much publicized revolt last May. As creator, producer, writer and star, Seinfeld himself is pushing north of $1 million per episode. Unlike his compadres, he also gets a generous cut of the show’s syndie revenue.
In a measure of how important the show is to NBC’s bottom line, NBC prexy Wright and G.E. boss Welch reportedly offered to more than double Seinfeld’s salary in exchange for a tenth season. NBC commands anywhere from $500,000 to $800,000 per 30-second spot in “Seinfeld.”
Subtracting its boffo Thursday night numbers driven by “Seinfeld” and “ER,” NBC loses most of its 1.4 rating point edge (for season-to-date) over ABC in the all-important demo group of adults 18-49, according to an analysis of Nielsen data. Moreover, the promotional platform provided by Thursday nights resonates throughout the week and into NBC’s latenight lineup as well as its network news productions.
For Seinfeld, after enduring barbs for what some TV critics have deemed an uneven ninth season so far, creative concerns won out over commercial considerations. The 43-year-old comedian likened his decision to call it a day next spring to that of a baseball player who wisely decides to retire while his batting average is still high.
(Jenny Hontz and Michael Fleming contributed to this report.)