Seinfeld: The show about nothing that keeps on giving
As Seinfeld rakes in billions in syndication fees, Joe O'Shea looks at TV's top-earning shows
Published 19/08/2010 | 05:00
For a show that was famously "about nothing", the classic sit-com Seinfeld has added up to a whole lot of something for everybody involved.
The hit comedy may have finally gone off the air 12 years ago after 180 episodes, multiple awards and the adulation of critics and viewers alike.
But in terms of generating ongoing revenue, Seinfeld is the syndication gift that keeps on giving.
Repeats of the show regarded by many as the best sit-com of all time have generated almost €1.9bn on network TV channels (in Ireland, Seinfeld is a big part of the schedule on 3e).
A further €306m has been generated through syndication on cable TV.
Without counting the many millions made through DVD box-sets and other merchandising, Seinfeld re-runs generate millions of dollars all around the world on a weekly basis.
The continuing value of Seinfeld to Warner Brothers Entertainment, which has the rights to the series, was revealed in New York last week when the chairman of Warners, Barry Meyer, met with potential investors.
Mr Meyer was able to reassure the money men that whatever happens with new shows produced by Warners, they can always rely on Seinfeld to keep a steady revenue stream flowing.
The Warners boss was only confirming the long-held wisdom that says in TV, syndication is where the real money is.
Hit shows like Seinfeld and the Charlie Sheen sitcom Two and A Half Men will continue to rake in millions of dollars in repeat fees long after the actors, producers and scriptwriters involved have picked up their last pay cheque.
And besides the obvious syndication champs such as Friends, Scrubs and The King of Queens, the list of top earners does include some surprises.
Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean has been a hit in 94 countries around the world and continues to be screened in most of those markets today (there have also been hit spin-off movies and a Mr Bean cartoon series).
The late Benny Hill remains a big star in the US, Europe and Asia thanks to endless re-runs of hundreds of episodes of The Benny Hill Show.
The unique selling point for both Mr Bean and Benny Hill is that they have little or no dialogue -- the words-free slapstick can be enjoyed just as easily in Tallahassee, Tashkent or Timbuktu.
At the height of Mr Bean's success, Rowan Atkinson was the highest-paid actor in the UK.
And it's not surprising that Jerry Seinfeld, the star and co-creator of the show along with Larry David, are two of the happiest men in Hollywood (despite David's grumpy, cantankerous on-screen persona in his hit sit-com Curb Your Enthusiasm).
Both earn between €55m and €65m annually from their share of the syndication rights to the comedy they co-wrote back in the early '90s.
Seinfeld was even able to shrug off the recent critical and ratings failure of his much-hyped network show The Marriage Ref.
Jerry Seinfeld's return to network TV had a revolving cast including Madonna, Tina Fey, Larry David, Ricky Gervais and himself, adjudicating on the real-life marriage rows of ordinary couples, as shown on video clips.
But despite the hype and the big names involved, it bombed.
"The most God-awful mishmash of a comedy-variety show," said Time magazine's TV critic as baffled viewers tried and failed to love the new format.
"Painful, pointless, obnoxious" was another critic's view while the influential Baltimore Sun newspaper asked: "Who knew Seinfeld could be this unfunny?"
Jerry Seinfeld has remained calm amid the critical lashing and NBC executives simply commissioned a second series of The Marriage Ref just as ratings hit a new low.
And why should they worry?
The former stand-up comedian is rich enough to never have to fret about anything again and NBC knows that whatever the critics say, The Marriage Ref will easily turn a profit on syndication rights.
"I would be surprised if Jerry Seinfeld looked at any reviews or cared about ratings numbers," says Sean L McCarthy, editor of the Comic's Comic blog.
"This is him doing something he wanted to do and he didn't have to do it."
The star of Seinfeld has been in semi-retirement since the sit-com came off the air in 1998 (with 105 million US viewers tuning into the final episode).
He has done some stand-up in small clubs, written a children's book, made one movie (the so-so animated comedy Bee Movie) and starred in a $300m ad campaign for Microsoft alongside his buddy Bill Gates.
The comedian has also devoted a lot of time and some pocket change to his collection of classic Porsche sports cars.
At last count, he had 46 Porsches in his collection, including an ultra-rare, million-dollar Porsche 959 race car.
Life has not been so straightforward for his Seinfeld co-stars George, Elaine and Kramer -- or Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards, as they are less well known.
They didn't qualify for a cut of the syndication riches and their post-Seinfeld careers have led to a legend of a curse.
Each tried to launch new sitcoms, and each new show was quickly cancelled.
Louis-Dreyfus did enjoy some success with her sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine after seeing her first, post-Seinfeld show cancelled.
In her acceptance speech after winning an Emmy with the show in 2006, Louis-Dreyfus exclaimed: "I'm not somebody who really believes in curses, but curse this, baby!"
The show has since been cancelled after four seasons.
Seinfeld remains the syndication king but the '90s sitcom is unlikely to hold the all-time record in years to come. That honour will go to another half-hour of comedy brilliance.
Popular culture academic Professor Robert Thompson says: "When the end of world history comes, The Simpsons will be the most re-run show of all time and make the most money."
Hard luck, Larry and Jerry. But at least you guys have the syndication fees to fall back on.