Wednesday, July 5, 1989, may have marked the beginning of the end of “watercooler TV.”
In the middle of the summer 25 years ago, NBC aired the pilot for a show one of its own executives had criticized as, “Too New York, too Jewish.” Test audiences were even more blunt: “You can’t get too excited about going to the laundromat,” one said about the show then called “The Seinfeld Chronicles.”
At least initially, both seemed on point. For four seasons, “Seinfeld” flirted with cancelation. Yet something changed in Season 5, when the show moved to Thursday nights and a comfy timeslot behind “Cheers” in NBC’s lineup: People began watching. A lot of people.
On February 4, 1993 — an episode, ironically, in which Jerry and George pitch NBC a pilot for a show about “nothing” — “Seinfeld” cracked the Top 10 in the Nielsen ratings for the first time. It never looked back, charging ahead for another five seasons, and producing a series finale that drew some 76 million viewers. That was within shouting distance of that year’s Super Bowl, which drew 90 million.
At PostTV, we learned this week that many Washington Post employees feel a real connection to the show. We learned that, in part, it stems from longtime Seinfeld writer Peter Mehlman beginning his career in the Post sports department, before pivoting to TV and inventing the phrases “shrinkage” and “yada yada.” Many Post employees also pointed out that “Seinfeld” was more than just a classic mixture of great writing and spot-on physical comedy (though in this video they pay homage to the show’s ultimate example of that).
They said that “Seinfeld” was a cultural thing. You practically had to watch it on Thursday nights just to understand what everyone was talking about Friday around the office or at school.
Six years after Seinfeld’s finale, NBC’s follow-up megahit “Friends” took a final bow — in front of about 52 million people, almost one-third fewer viewers than “Seinfeld.” The next year, “Everybody Loves Raymond” had its CBS finale, drawing 32 million viewers, a 40 percent drop from “Friends.” That 2005 episode was the most recent show to crack even the top-13 highest-watched finales ever; thanks to an ever-increasing number of channels and the Netflixification of TV, it may well be the last.
In 2007, for instance, pay-cable titan “The Sopranos” drew 11 million viewers for its finale; it was beat out that night by NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” Last year, the finale of “Breaking Bad,” on basic cable — seemingly the most-discussed episode of TV in recent memory — drew 10.3 million viewers. When asked about the “water-cooler TV” phenomenon last year by the New York Times, Beau Willimon, the 38-year-old creator of Netflix smash “House of Cards,” flatly replied, “I haven’t seen a water cooler since I was a kid.”
And yet, “Seinfeld” endures, thanks in part to ongoing rounds of syndication that have grossed more than $3 billion since the show left the air in 1998. Who knew a show about nothing would mean so much?