Back in 1991, 9.7 percent of television households watched George Costanza embarrass himself via answering machine on Feb. 13, when the fourth episode of Seinfeld’s second season aired. By today’s standards, that number — and the 13 million viewers that came with it — would make Seinfeld the most-watched show on TV. Even Sunday Night Football, last season’s biggest eyeball-grabber, earned a rating of just 8.2 — two full points above the season’s second place show, CBS’s The Big Bang Theory.
But before the days of DVRs, increased cable competition, and the vast wilds of the Internet, a 9.7 rating wasn’t so impressive — especially coming after weeks of dwindling viewership. NBC would have been within its rights to can the show then and there. Instead, the network chose to hold onto Seinfeld — after putting it on a two-month hiatus.
The rest, of course, is history. Barring a few dips here and there, Seinfeld returned stronger than ever, racking up ratings as well as Emmy nominations. By season 5, it was the third-most watched show on television; by season 6 it was number one.
The Seinfeld story should be a comfort to any showrunner with a beloved but under-watched program. Unfortunately, according to NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, it’s a trajectory that’s just not possible anymore. “With deteriorating ratings the tolerance for a show that’s struggling is just shorter than it’s ever been,” she told TV critics at TCA over the weekend. “So it’s frustrating for all of us that you can’t take the time to nurture a show and grow the audience as much as you might want to.”
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