Fifteen years ago today, “Seinfeld” signed off for the last time. It averaged a staggering 76.3 million viewers, per Nielsen estimates, at the time the sixth-most-watched entertainment event (excluding Super Bowls) ever.
Somehow, it’s hard to imagine this week’s “The Office” sendoff inspiring similar tune-in in the same timeslot.
So was the “Seinfeld’s” exit a kind of “last hurrah of the huge broadcast event that knits us as a nation,” as someone (OK, me) suggested it could potentially represent in a front-page Los Angeles Times piece tied to the show’s final episode?
That’s not to say nothing has happened since the end of the show about nothing. But a tremendous amount has happened that nobody could have foreseen at the time, which is a good thing to remember as we engage in similar analysis today.
Since “Seinfeld,” notably, the really huge TV events that have knitted the nation together other than sports have generally involved reality TV – a genre that, in its modern incarnation, as defined by the introduction of “Survivor” and “Big Brother” in the U.S., didn’t even exist until a couple of years after Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine occupied their jail cell. So it might be true scripted programs can’t reach those heights again, in an age of niche tastes and alternatives.
Some of the other quotes in that 1998 piece also bear revisiting and comment, with the original passages in italics:
* “This is a culture of dispersion, and it’s dispersed in television as in other forms,” said Todd Gitlin, a New York University professor and author of “The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Cultural Wars.” ” ‘Bonanza’ belonged to a time when culture was more conglomerated and focused–there were three networks and three car companies. In a larger sense, the significance is that the culture no longer has a common story.”
Not only does that appear to be true, but it has enormous implications, for everything from culture to politics. Fox News and MSNBC were in their infancy when “Seinfeld” ended. Today, partisan constituencies can consume news channels tailored to their specific narrative, which leaves us not only lacking a common story, but a common set of facts.
* The challenge facing the networks will become more difficult as the spectrum of options expands. An explosion of choices promises to follow once the industry solves the technological and marketing puzzle of how best to wed digital television, computers and the telephone to disseminate information and entertainment.
This challenge, arguably, continues to define — and unsettle — the TV business, although the broadcast networks are still around, even if NBC’s Thursday lineup is a shadow of its former self.
* The challenge of attracting viewers has also influenced programming content, according to Pier Massimo Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who established the university’s “civility project.””You need more and more abrasive behavior–or so the producers and the writers believe–in order to grab the attention of an audience that is becoming inured to breaches of civility,” he said, citing the “happy rudeness” displayed in situation comedies, including “Seinfeld,” and the gritty realism of dramas like “NYPD Blue” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
“Every new show wants to establish a shock level for itself in order to put itself on the map. It’s a way of besting the previous show.”
This is almost certainly true, if not always necessarily a bad thing. “Game of Thrones” generates buzz by being shocking at times, but it’s also one of the best programs on television.
* Ironically, one of the people I turned to for insight at the time was producer Chuck Lorre, who subsequently co-created “Two and a Half Men” and the closest thing to a current Thursday-night water-cooler comedy of old in CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory.” For a guy who is often kind of gloomy, he was surprisingly optimistic about the future.
According to Chuck Lorre, executive producer of the ABC comedy “Dharma & Greg,” which paid homage to “Seinfeld” in this week’s episode, the water-cooler show will merely lie dormant “till somebody does something remarkable. The medium fools you. It still has the capacity to bring people together.”
* Finally, the late Larry Gelbart — always a voice of sobriety and reason — suggested there was simply too much ado about nothing, and that the outpouring of coverage (what writer Frank Rich has dubbed a “mediagasm”) was disproportionate to the merits of the actual show.
“It is a case of another kind of media frenzy that is self-perpetuating, [naming] a winner of the moment,” Gelbart said. “I think virtues are being attributed to the show [that] the people involved don’t even claim for themselves. It’s a show about a bunch of spiteful, mean-spirited people. It’s fun, but it’s hardly statue material.”
There might be a better way to put it, but at this point, I’ve got nothing.