After a morning of network corporate-speak at the semiannual convention of TV critics in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 15, reporters for whom coffee alone was not incentive enough to stay alive snapped out of their stupors and snapped on their microcassette recorders at the unbilled performer introduced by NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. Striding to the front of the room in a fine haircut and an even finer suit, Jerry Seinfeld was there to announce that, buoyed by the enthusiastic reception his show was getting this year and jazzed by the fun everyone was still having — ”like we did in the beginning, when we were a bomb” — he and the cast had definitely, finally, at long last, after much waffling and despite rumors to the contrary, decided to continue Seinfeld for an eighth season next fall.
Applause all around. Then he took a few questions. No, he hasn’t made any decision to marry his 20-year-old girlfriend, Shoshanna Lonstein, even though ”I hate to go counter to the great American tradition of revealing things about your personal life in front of the media before you do to the people that are actually in your life.” No, the show is not likely to do any crossover episodes with any other NBC property, since ”as you’ve probably noticed, we’re not joiners. For some reason, we’re at the party but we’re never really in the main group of people. We’re the people making wisecracks over by the bad meat.” He made his audience laugh. He posed off stage for grip-and-grin pictures with NBC chairman Robert Wright and West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer. He looked glossy and powerful and Hollywoodish and a long way from the gig-a-night stand-up comic who had hit the comedy-club circuit for 16 years before a TV series came his way. Then he was off, in a whoosh of ultraexpensive wheels.
That Seinfeld is coming back for one more, possibly, probably final season is happy news for Littlefield, who counts on the series as a major magnet in the network’s powerfully attractive Thursday-night lineup. Once a cult taste with a rocky future, now the mature success story against which every other sitcom about untethered friends who banter a lot is measured, the show earns a bundle for the Peacock network, commanding an estimate of nearly a million bucks a commercial minute — Super Bowl-size rates. That’s because, seen by an average of 31.8 million people per week (the show’s all- time high), Seinfeld is now TV’s top-rated sitcom. In syndication through Columbia TriStar since last September, the series is aired on a record 224 stations, where it ranks in the top 10, pulling in an average viewership of 9.7 million. (The felicitous effect is to attract new viewers, rather than take a bite out of the existing audience — a problem Home Improvement is currently facing.) And in a deal between United Airlines and Columbia TriStar to promote the syndication, six episodes will be shown January through March on United’s domestic flights. In other words, the show is now as much a staple of American pop-cultural life as a ”fasten seat belts” sign.