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'Seinfeld's' Finale Ends Up in Sixth Place of All Time

Television: Nielsen says 76.3 million people saw the sitcom finish its run, but NBC claims 108 million watched.

May 16, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After all the hype, the last "Seinfeld" may have proved a letdown for many viewers, but the show didn't disappoint NBC in the ratings department, as the raw numbers rivaled other historic television events.

The national audience was on the low end of projections the network issued in April but still massive, with 76.3 million people watching, Nielsen Media Research reported Friday.

Thursday's "Seinfeld" thus ranks as the sixth most-watched entertainment event (excluding Super Bowl games) of all time, behind the 1983 "MASH" finale (which drew 106 million people), the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of "Dallas" in 1980 (at 83.6 million), the last "Cheers" (80.5 million) five years ago, the 1983 movie "The Day After" (77.4 million) and the concluding chapter of "Roots" (76.7 million) in 1977.

NBC issued its own inflated estimate, putting the total audience at 108 million people--predicating that figure on the millions who watched at viewing parties across the United States. The network has repeatedly noted that Nielsen's methodology doesn't regularly record such out-of-home viewing.

Perhaps understandably reluctant to let such a juggernaut pass quietly, NBC also announced that it would repeat the finale at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, the concluding night of the current rating sweeps. The network will eliminate on-air promotion from the encore presentation, so Wednesday's telecast will run only a few minutes past 9 p.m., leading into the season finales of "3rd Rock From the Sun" and "Law & Order."

NBC cited the millions of fans who missed the episode as its rationale for repeating it, but there may be a more practical consideration: Networks are granted two airings when they license programs, so NBC doubtless wanted to use that second airing when it would do the most good, padding the top-rated network's sweeps results while the "Seinfeld" iron still might possess some heat.

As it was, NBC bludgeoned the competition Thursday, as the network's nightly average of 61 million viewers more than doubled the combined audience for CBS, ABC and Fox.

"Seinfeld" came into Thursday as television's top-rated program, averaging roughly 30 million viewers each week. The first episode of the series, "The Seinfeld Chronicles," drew fewer than 16 million people for its premiere in July 1989.

Advertisers paid record-setting rates for commercials within the program, eclipsing the previous high of $1.3 million for a 30-second spot established by this year's Super Bowl.

Following "Seinfeld," the season-ending "ER" also set a ratings record, surpassing the mark established by the live broadcast that began the season in September. With Jerry Seinfeld as a guest, viewing of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" also soared.

Locally, KNBC-TV Channel 4 surpassed the national average, with almost 48% of all homes in the area--about 2.4 million households--tuned to "Seinfeld."

KCAL-TV Channel 9's attempt to counter-program with a prime-time showing of "The Jerry Springer Show" provided scant competition; in fact, the second-highest rated station during the 75-minute finale was Spanish-language outlet KMEX-TV Channel 34.

The rating in Los Angeles placed seventh among the 39 major cities individually monitored by Nielsen, behind Sacramento, Philadelphia, Seattle, New York, Boston and St. Louis. Ratings were substantially lower in most Southern markets, especially Memphis and Houston.

Those overwhelmed by the saturation coverage of the final episode will doubtless be reassured to discover that life will go on, even for "Seinfeld" fans. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center released Sunday, only about 1 in 5 people who watch the show said they would miss it a great deal, compared to 51% who said they won't miss it much.

As for those put off by the ending, Jonathan Swiller, a writer who watched at his home in New York, said he thought Larry David--who created the series with Seinfeld and wrote the final installment--made a deliberate choice in trotting out all the characters the "Seinfeld" foursome had alienated.

"I think he was saying, 'These characters are repellent, and any of you out there who didn't know that, wake up,' " Swiller said.

Details of the episode remained secret until the day before it aired, when the Boston Herald reported the central premise--that Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer would be put on trial for failing to intervene while witnessing a carjacking.

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Times staff writer Jane Hall in New York contributed to this story.

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