Jerry Goes, So Goes NBC Analysis: With the conclusion of 'Seinfeld,' NBC's charmed, money-making, ratings-leading strategy also may be coming to an end.

December 27, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The end of "Seinfeld" means more than just the loss of a great sitcom for NBC.

It marks the end of a brilliant programming strategy -- forged in the early 1980s by NBC's programming director Brandon Tartikoff and his boss, NBC chairman Grant Tinker -- that made NBC billions of dollars as America's favorite prime-time network.

NBC has been riding that train for more than a decade, with "Seinfeld" as its engine since 1993. But, with Jerry Seinfeld's decision this week to end the series come May, it looks as if that era of golden comedy programming and ratings dominance could be coming to end.

"Last year, when newspapers were [doing stories] asking if Jerry was worth a million dollars an episode, we had to laugh. He was worth twice as much and then some in terms of our overall programming strategy. The question is where do we go from here," an NBC executive said yesterday, asking that his name not be used.

NBC's official statement says, "To keep a show of this caliber at its peak has been a great undertaking. We respect Jerry's decision that, at the end of this season, it's time to move on."

To understand why NBC offered Seinfeld more than $5 million an episode to keep his sitcom in production for one more season of 22 episodes, you have to go back to the start of the 1980s when NBC was in last place and losing money in prime time.

Tartikoff saw Bill Cosby on the "Tonight" show one night and decided to try to get Cosby to do a sitcom for NBC. "The Cosby Show" hit the airwaves in September 1984, and within a year was the highest rated series on television.

Tartikoff and Tinker used "Cosby" as an anchor to build $l audiences for other shows on Thursday: "Family Ties," "A Different World," "Night Court," "Dear John," "Wings" and "L.A. Law."

The strength of "The Cosby Show" probably even meant an extra season or two for "Cheers," so strong was its pull on viewers.

"The Cosby Show" left the airwaves at the end of 1991, and NBC foundered on Thursdays in the fall of 1992.

But the ship was quickly set afloat the next year by moving "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld" to Thursdays. "Mad About You" took Cosby's old spot at 8, and "Seinfeld" took over at 9.

"Mad About You" failed to make the Nielsen top 20 that year, but "Seinfeld" finished third among all series. Within a year, it became the No. 1 series in prime time. It is still the highest-rated comedy, finishing second to the medical drama "ER" the last two years in overall ranking.

"Seinfeld" became such a strong attraction that anything following it -- or preceding it -- became a ratings winner.

In the last five seasons, NBC has used the coattails of "Seinfeld" to launch "Frasier," "Caroline in the City," "Suddenly Susan," "ER" and "Veronica's Closet."

Furthermore, once "Mad About You" became a top 20 hit thanks to its "Seinfeld" proximity, the network used the time period between those two shows to launch such series as "Friends."

At one point, NBC could build an audience for series like "Mad DTC About You" and "Frasier" on Thursday night and then move them to another night where they in turn would serve as anchors.

But those days look to be ending with Seinfeld's announcement.

"ER" is still the No. 1 show, but as an adult drama it needs to play at 10 p.m. Airing that late, "ER" will not affect the early-evening ratings the way "Seinfeld" could.

Worse, from NBC's point of view, its contract with Warner Brothers, which owns "ER," is up at the end of this season, which means Warners could take "ER" to any network it wants.

Bottom line, NBC will now have to pay whatever Warners wants for "ER," and it still won't have the punch it had with "Seinfeld."

NBC will have still have the highly rated "Friends" at 8 p.m. Thursdays. But, if there is nothing to hold viewers between "Friends" and "ER," NBC may get such a huge mid-evening tune-out that it will be hard to draw enough viewers back at 10 p.m. to keep "ER" at the top of the Nielsen charts.

In recent years, there have been lots of holes in NBC's prime-time schedules. But they never seemed major as long as NBC could count on launching new comedies on Thursdays and winning so big on that night that it wound up the No. 1 network for the season.

Without Thursdays, though, all the holes will show. Monday is now starting to look like a disaster with the "Women Who Work" strategy -- "Suddenly Susan," "Caroline in the City," "Fired Up" and "Naked Truth" -- not working at all. Baby Buchman is doing damage to "Mad About You" on Tuesdays. Wednesdays and Fridays belong to ABC; Saturdays and Sundays to CBS.

Is there a "must-see" comedy in any of this year's new NBC sitcoms: "Union Square," "The Tony Danza Show," "Built to Last," "Working," "Jenny" and "Veronica's Closet"?

When Tartikoff died earlier this year of cancer at age 48, a number of tributes said his death marked the end of an era in prime-time programming.

But that wasn't exactly true as long as "Seinfeld" was on NBC's schedule. "Seinfeld" was developed during the Tartikoff era, debuting in May 1990, a year before Tartikoff left NBC to take over as president of Paramount Pictures. It was one of the last series he helped develop and bore all the marks of what made his brand of television so great.

When the last original "Seinfeld" episode airs in May, it will be a programming watershed and probably mean the start of a new network order.

Pub Date: 12/27/97

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