Don't ask the cast or creators of "Seinfeld" why, in the four weeks since it has moved from Wednesday to Thursday nights, the NBC comedy series has suddenly gained all the momentum of an avalanche, increasing its audience by 57% and jumping from the No. 40 show on television to No. 5 last week.
"This probably means that a catastrophe is imminent, that something terrible will emerge from this," fretted creator and executive producer Larry David. "I really don't know how to account for it."
And don't ask them why "Seinfeld," which NBC executives simply hoped would find more viewers at 9:30 p.m. behind the long-running hit "Cheers," surpassed their wildest expectations by becoming the first half-hour show at 9:30 to improve on the "Cheers" audience since "Taxi" did so a decade ago. "Cheers" ranked No. 7 last week, behind "Seinfeld."
"To tell you the truth, I'm very happy about all this," said a slightly dazed Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays Elaine. "But we've been doing the show a long time. So I'd like to know where everybody has been the last three years."
Nor should you ask them why a show that NBC has shuffled into eight different time slots since 1989--the last one directly opposite ABC's powerhouse sitcom "Home Improvement"--finally broke through last week to become the top-rated show on television with adults 18 to 49, an age group that advertisers pay big bucks to reach.
"I guess you kind of plant a seed, and you water a plant and you don't notice anything," said Jerry Seinfeld, who executive produces and stars in the droll series as a struggling New York comic. "Then all of sudden you turn around and go, 'Look, it's a big tree.' You're taken by surprise."
Even NBC's top brass was caught up in the spirit of the ratings. When asked to explain the show's phenomenal new success on Thursday nights, NBC's programming vice president Preston Beckman quipped: "It's about nothing."
That self-effacing line was used by one of the "Seinfeld" characters earlier in the season to describe a TV show that he was pitching to anxious network executives, a show that resembled "Seinfeld."
Because "Seinfeld" is, indeed, about nothing much more than a group of friends espousing their views on life, it has been viewed as an upscale, urban TV series hip enough to play in Los Angeles and New York but supposedly a puzzle to the rest of the country.
"It's just nice to have that stigma of being a cult hit removed," Seinfeld said. "I always knew we weren't a narrow demographic hit, because of comments I receive from the garbage man on the street or the security guy by the X-ray machine at the airport. But for a lot of reasons--the time slot, the competition--there has been that perception."
There's no doubt that "Seinfeld" has come a long way in a short amount of time. Last fall, when NBC boldly scheduled "Seinfeld" opposite ABC's "Home Improvement" on Wednesday nights at 9, NBC hoped that each show would find its own audience. The strategy didn't work. Seinfeld's sophisticated humor was short-circuited by the mass appeal of Tim Allen and his power tools, and "Home Improvement" rose to become the No. 3 show on television.
"I'll be perfectly honest: 'Home Improvement' won the battle," Beckman said. " 'Seinfeld' wasn't showing signs of improving. It was literally wallowing. We had to get it out of there. It wasn't a time to be proud."
So in an unusual move last month to attract more viewers to its last-place, prime-time schedule, NBC began airing two episodes on Thursdays of "Cheers," the network's most popular series. The comedy "Wings" was sandwiched between the two episodes--a repeat and an original--while "Seinfeld" brought up the rear at 9:30 p.m.
"You have a lot of people watching 'Cheers,' who turn on TV to watch comedy on Thursday," Seinfeld said. "And they're like a built-in audience. Then you add to them our audience, which follows us wherever we go. I guess it has added up to a substantial figure."
The speculation now is that, with "Cheers" departing when the season is over, "Seinfeld" will take over at 9 p.m. next season. "We're in the apprenticeship program," Louis-Dreyfus said with a laugh.
"We'll be in syndication next year, and that will probably help us further, the same way it helped 'Cheers,' " Seinfeld observed. "Most people are still just now discovering our show. Most of the audience watching the show on Thursdays have not seen us before. They're new to us. There's 60-some-odd episodes they haven't seen."
Meanwhile, there are several other Thursday night contenders for next season. "Wings" has increased NBC's audience at 8:30 p.m. Thursdays and has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the 8 p.m. slot next fall.
There has also been talk of pairing "Seinfeld" once again with "Mad About You." The upscale romantic comedy, starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt as honeymooners, followed "Seinfeld" on Wednesdays but was moved to Saturdays at 9:30 p.m., where it has shown improvement.
Beckman said that he will see how NBC's development schedule for next fall rounds out before making any promises, pointing out that there is a "Cheers" spinoff starring Kelsey Grammer in the works that could also play a major role Thursday nights.
In the meantime, he hopes that the "Cheers" countdown will continue to increase the visibility of "Seinfeld" and "Wings." If the final broadcast of "Cheers" on May 20 lives up to NBC's projections of a 35 rating--or 33 million viewing households--it will rank as one of the most-watched entertainment broadcasts in history. NBC is reportedly selling 30-second commercial spots on the one-hour program for $600,000.