NBC’s Thursday night lineup of “Must See TV” was once an unstoppable force. Starting in the ‘80s, shows like Family Ties, The Crosby Show, and Cheers lit the torch for a Thursday night of great TV. Then, in the ‘90s, Friends, Mad About You, and Seinfeld continued on with the tradition. Not only were those shows well reviewed, they brought in viewers. Seinfeld and Friends both enjoyed great ratings: Seinfeld was the highest rated show on TV in 1995 and ’98 while Friends was the most watched show in 2002. Thursday night on NBC was "Must See TV" and everyone was tuning in.
Sadly for the network, the ratings have plummeted since Friends went off the air in 2004. Shows like The Office, 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Recreation are critically adored, but they have failed to bring in viewers the way their former Thursday night brethren did. With the miserable ratings, some have claimed that Must See TV is on its way out. I often wonder if a show like Seinfeld or Friends were back on the air today (producing new episodes), would they get the ratings they used to? Given TV ratings as a whole, even a massive hit couldn’t save "Must See TV’s" ratings, even one like Seinfeld or Friends.
Seinfeld’s nine seasons ran from 1989 to 1998. The final season of the show saw an average of 21.27 million viewers per episode. It was the number one ranked show on television, beating out ER, which had 19.99 million viewers per episode. With Veronica’s Closet and Friends coming in ranked third and fourth, respectively, NBC had the four most watched shows on TV.
In 2002, Friends averaged 24.50 million viewers per episode. It was the most watched show, and even without Seinfeld, NBC’s Thursday night was holding on strong. When Friends went off the air in 2004, NBC saw how much the show did for the network.
The ratings for today’s block of Thursday night comedy on NBC are dwarfed by shows like Seinfeld: The Office’s best season (in terms of ratings) was viewed by an audience of only 9 million in 2009. The other shows are doing even worse. 30 Rock’s highest rated season came in 2009 when 7.5 million viewers tuned in. Community and Parks and Recreation fared even worse with their highest rated season topping out at 5 million and 6 million viewers respectively.
In 1998, NBC had the four highest ranked shows on TV. The highest ranked show in today’s lineup of Must See TV is The Office’s came in at 52.
How did Seinfeld and Friends do so well while the shows that followed have struggled so mightily? Part of it is that network numbers just aren’t what they used to be. A Vulture piece puts some of the numbers into perspective: In 1995, 27.3 million viewers watched a rerun of Grace Under Fire on a Tuesday in March. That’s nearly the same number of people who watched the Ashton Kutcher premiere of Two and a Half Men.
Today’s shows are not attracting viewers the way that they used to. Part of it is the amount of other content around, part of it may be that we can watch everything online or with DVR. Seinfeld and Friends are two of the best sitcoms that TV has ever seen, but many would argue that The Office and 30 Rock could also be described as two of the best sitcoms ever.
The main knocks on today’s TV shows that fail to garner ratings is that they are too narrow in scope and don’t attract a big enough audience. Both Seinfeld and Friends were widely viewed. Guessing whether the hits of the '90s would be hits today is a tough game to play, but if The Big Bang Theory can attract and audience of 15.82 million, I think it's safe to say that Seinfeld and Friends would be in that same boat.
NBC’s "Must See TV" has shows that are well reviewed, but not well rated. They need a new Seinfeld or Friends to fix that.