“Seinfeld” was one of the highest-rated shows on television during its nine-season run on NBC and has generated more than $3 billion in syndication, but there was a huge possibility before its run that it would’ve never aired.
“It was probably the lowest-testing pilot in the history of NBC,” Kevin Reilly, who was a development executive at NBC in the 1980s and later became the network’s president, said of the early feedback on “Seinfeld.”
A pilot episode of a series is a standalone episode (usually the first episode, if it ever gets more than one) that is used to sell the show to networks.
“‘These are losers,'” Reilly quoted the comments from early tests. “‘It’s not funny.’ ‘We know who Jerry Seinfeld is. He should not do this show.'”
Reilly met with other major TV players of the time for a panel discussion in Beverly Hills on Tuesday about NBC’s “Must See TV” era, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The primetime TV block included “Seinfeld,” “Wings,” “Mad About You,” “Frasier,” “Friends,” and later “Will & Grace.”
Despite the terrible early feedback, the NBC brass liked the show. But they had to pull some financial strings to give it a series order.
“We loved it,” former NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield said. “We picked up all this other crap and finally we were running out of options and time and there was a late-night meeting with finance and [then-NBC scheduling executive Preston Beckman].”
“Seinfeld” was originally commissioned by NBC’s late-night and specials department, so one of legendary comedian Bob Hope’s specials was spiked in order to make “Seinfeld” happen.
“Bob still thinks he made that special,” Beckman joked.
NBC scrounged up enough money to offer “Seinfeld” a very small four-episode order to begin with.
“Jerry was quiet and always respectful and said, ‘Just one question: In the history of television, has anything ever worked with a four-episode order?'” Littlefield recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘Okay, we’ll do it,’ and that began the marriage.”
“Seinfeld” aired on NBC from 1989 to 1998. In its early seasons, the show ranked No. 46 on TV for ratings. But by its sixth season, it had climbed into one of the top two highest-rated shows on TV and maintained that through its final season. The finale was watched by 76.3 million people.