How 'Seinfeld' Mastered Its Domain

As it embarks on a sixth cycle of syndication, a look back at how the show went from being one-and-done to TV’s most lucrative franchise
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Quality, we are told, still matters. In this golden age of TV, elite shows succeed not just because of crafty marketing or sheer promotional muscle. If anything, too much spin and not enough substance can be a liability in this era of curation, recaps and a wealth of word of mouth.

Rather, the best shows work because they are good. Ipso facto. And if there is one single show for this syllogism, it is Seinfeld, arguably not only television’s greatest show, quality-wise, but also its most profitable.

Given the paucity of broadcast sitcom hits and first-run syndication heirs to Oprah Winfrey’s throne, looking back at the show’s illustrious run feels like far more than pure nostalgia. It is an essential quest for current execs, who are trying to determine what parts, if any, of the Seinfeld legend could actually be replicated today. Or maybe, as they say in Silicon Valley, the show is television’s unicorn.

“You could look at Seinfeld as the greatest show ever, but you could also consider it disappointing that there haven’t been more A-level sitcoms,” says Frank Cicha, senior VP, Fox Television Stations. “If more shows like Seinfeld were coming off the networks, simple math tells you that Seinfeld would matter a little less right now.”

Let’s start with some numbers. Seinfeld has driven more revenue than perhaps any other TV show. In 2016, the show has earned an estimated $3.5 billion in revenue and is headed to its sixth cycle in syndication next fall. In April 2015, SVOD service Hulu licensed all 180 episodes of the series for a reported $875,000 per episode, or $160 million.

But the Hulu deal was pocket change for a show that had already made billions of dollars, putting it at the peak of the pantheon of other top earners, which include The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and Friends, all of which are produced and distributed by Warner Bros. (Another contender in terms of all-time valuation is Fox’s The Simpsons, which remains in production as a primetime show and was syndicated synergistically to FX Networks in a mega-deal in 2014.)

Consider that the last big broadcast sitcom hit was Modern Family, launched on ABC in 2009—seven full years ago—and the last big off-net syndication hit was The Big Bang Theory, which debuted on CBS in 2007 and entered syndication in September 2011.

As large as it now looms over the TV landscape, in reality Seinfeld is a show that by no means should have become one of television’s biggest hits. In fact, it probably shouldn’t have even made it past the pilot.

“So you’re saying, I go in to NBC, and tell them I got this idea for a show about nothing.”

Seinfeld premiered on NBC as The Seinfeld Chronicles on July 5, 1989, when the legendary Brandon Tartikoff was president of NBC Entertainment. If you know nothing about TV history, know this: Nothing of note premieres around major holidays, when no one is paying attention to TV. Already the show was considered doomed because focus groups had told the network they hated it, so NBC decided to burn off the pilot.

But something about the show clicked with Team Tartikoff, always willing to take risks, and NBC went ahead and ordered four more episodes of the show, renamed Seinfeld after a series on ABC titled The Marshall Chronicles had failed. The episodes did not air until the following summer, but they got a plum time slot leading out of reruns of one of TV’s top sitcoms: Cheers.

That performance gave NBC brass a little more faith in audience reception to a show they already liked internally, and they went ahead and ordered 13 more episodes. They did not begin airing until Jan. 23, 1991.

Critics immediately liked the show, but it still was not considered a hit, with its now almost-unheard-of 12.5 household rating and 18 million viewers. NBC stuck with it, putting in a full order for 22 episodes for what would be season 3 (although cocreator Larry David already was convinced he and Jerry Seinfeld were out of stories to tell), launching it on Sept. 18, 1991.

From there, the show started to grow. By the end of season 3, the sitcom wasn’t doing much better than it had after season 2, averaging a 12.5 rating in households and about 18 million viewers.

It was in season 4—with such famous episodes as “The Bubble Boy,” “The Junior Mint” and “The Contest”—that the show finally began to climb in the Nielsen ratings, finishing the season ranked 25th with an average of nearly 21 million viewers. In season 5, the show finally skyrocketed, jumping to third in the Nielsens, with nearly 30 million viewers.

By the fall of 1994, Seinfeld had become a legitimate hit. That September, a new sitcom called Friends debuted, and NBC scheduled it to air at 8:30 p.m., leading into Seinfeld. While critics compared the New York City-based sitcom unfavorably to the more sophisticated and cynical Seinfeld, viewers immediately loved it.

That was the first season Seinfeld led the Nielsen rankings, and it remained TV’s first-or second-highest-rated show through the rest of its run.

When Seinfeld finally concluded after nine seasons on May 14, 1998, 76.3 million people tuned in, making it the fourth-most-watched series finale in TV history, behind only M*A*S*H, Cheers and The Fugitive.

The show easily could have continued, but this time Seinfeld agreed with David—who had left the series after season 7 to return to the writer’s room only for the finale—he had no more stories left to tell, more money than he had ever dreamed of (and much more to come), and he wanted to go out on a high note.

Seinfeld was so convinced that he turned down a full-court press and a direct offer from Jack Welch, chairman and CEO of NBC parent company General Electric, to increase his salary from $1 million per episode to $5 million, or $110 million for one season of television.

Walking away from $5 million an episode seems like insanity, but it hasn’t made much of a difference for Seinfeld, who has earned hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of his career, which has gone on to include a return to stand-up and producing and starring in new series including Crackle’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

“The performance of the show has exceeded everyone’s expectations,” says John Weiser, president of distribution, Sony Pictures Television. “It’s a phenomenon that’s broken every record you can measure in television distribution.”

“Oh look Elaine, the black-and-white cookie. I love the black-and-white. Two races of flavor living side by side in harmony.”

Much like when the show debuted on network television, Seinfeld was a bit of a slow starter in syndication.

It went into the marketplace at the same time as another huge sitcom, Home Improvement, starring Tim Allen on ABC. Home Improvement was perceived as “the much bigger of the two shows,” says Weiser. “Our job was to get the word out about Seinfeld, and we had an incredible story to tell.”

Wooing station managers with such Seinfeldian treats as black-and-white cookies, Junior Mints and chocolate babka, Columbia TriStar Television Distribution (now part of Sony Pictures Television) took the show out market-by-market. Whenever they closed a deal, they had the station manager “pay” with a special American Express credit card with Jerry Seinfeld—then the American Express spokesman—as the centurion in the middle.

After Seinfeld was sold and set to debut, TV’s newest network, Fox, was concurrently making a big push for prominence. Rupert Murdoch’s new player had stepped up and paid $1.6 billion to acquire rights to NFL football games, and it wanted bigger TV stations on which to air those expensive games. So Fox invested $500 million in New World Communications, causing several CBS affiliates to suddenly become Fox affiliates. Along with that deal came revised network-affiliate agreements. No longer could those stations opt out of their network late-night programming, no matter how poorly it was doing.

One station, CBS affiliate KLBK in Lubbock, Texas, had wanted to do just that, writes Jennifer Keishin Armstrong in her book Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything. Station manager Rick Lipps, who had bought the show for $90,000 a week, planned to air it at 10:30 p.m. in place of Late Show With David Letterman. With the new agreement, the only place he had left for Seinfeld was 4 p.m., in between Maury and Jeopardy!

The show didn’t earn high enough ratings at that time to be profit-able for the station, but it did prove a point: “It won the slot and took viewers from Oprah,” Armstrong writes. “It’s ‘halo effect’…helped lift the station’s entire afternoon heading into the local evening news.”

That Seinfeld halo effect continues today on many TV stations.

Tribune-owned WPIX New York, which long had aired Seinfeld at 11 p.m. out of its evening news, pushed the show back to 11:30 p.m. when it launched a revamped version of Arsenio Hall’s talk show in the time slot in September 2013. Arsenio quickly failed, and by that spring, PIX was ready to put Seinfeld back where it belonged.

“It’s no different than when I was a little kid and watched The Honeymooners,” says Sean Compton, Tribune president of strategic programming and acquisitions. “It’s a show that has held up in the ratings. We have the show in a lot of markets—not just in New York but in Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Cleveland—and it still kills in the demos. Because it’s so far along in its cycle, it costs less than some shows coming right off the network, and still does better.”

Tribune is so invested in Seinfeld that when it returned to 11 p.m. in 2014, it did an entire marketing campaign around the move, bedecking the outside of a 12-car No. 7 subway train and reproducing the diner at which the gang hung out inside one of the cars. The 7 train runs between Grand Central Station, where PIX is located, and Citi Field, where the New York Mets play. And all Seinfeld fans know what a big role baseball—whether the Mets (Keith Hernandez) or the Yankees (George Steinbrenner)—plays in the show.

“That subway war was one of our biggest swings in the time that I’ve been here,” says David Hyman, VP of marketing at WPIX. “We had the Mets at the time, so there was also a connection between Seinfeld and the Mets on our station.”

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In fact, Seinfeld is one of the few veteran shows in syndication that continues to generate marketing campaigns and activations, with many stations, including PIX, still holding “Festivus” celebrations every holiday season, offering Seinfeld-themed food trucks or bringing in the Soup Nazi—who still tours around the world in that character—to serve soup.

While Seinfeld premiered 27 years ago and entered syndication 21 years ago, the Hulu deal is exposing the show to viewers who weren’t even born when it started.

Armstrong has experienced this firsthand. “I live in a building in New York where there are a lot of NYU students,” she told B&C. “After the show came out on Hulu, I would go out into the hall and hear my neighbors watching Seinfeld. All they did that summer was smoke weed and watch Seinfeld.”

“The audience just loves the show on every platform,” says Weiser. “I don’t think there will ever be another Seinfeld. It’s the greatest show of all time.”

SEINFIELD’S CHRONICLE: A TIMELINE

July 5, 1989:Seinfeld premieres

1992: Wins first Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series

1994: Wins first Golden Globe for best comedy

Feb. 2, 1995: Reaches 100 episodes September

1995: Debuts in syndication 1996: Cocreator Larry David departs at the end of season 7.

May 14, 1998:Seinfeld ends its nine-season run, even though Jerry Seinfeld was offered $5 million per episode to keep going.

2002: TV Guide names Seinfeld “the greatest TV show of all time.”

2008:Entertainment Weekly names Seinfeld among the “100 best TV shows of the last 25 years.”

December 2012:Vanity Fair calls Seinfeld “the greatest sitcom of all time.”

April 2015:Seinfeld is licensed to subscription video-on-demand service Hulu for approximately $875,000 per episode, or nearly $160 million for the series’ 180 episodes.

September 2016:Rolling Stone ranks Seinfeld fifth on its list of greatest TV shows of all time.

Quality, we are told, still matters. In this golden age of TV, elite shows succeed not just because of crafty marketing or sheer promotional muscle. If anything, too much spin and not enough substance can be a liability in this era of curation, recaps and a wealth of word of mouth.

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