Back in 1991, 9.7 percent of television households watched George Costanza embarrass himself via answering machine on Feb. 13, when the fourth episode of Seinfeld’s second season aired. By today’s standards, that number — and the 13 million viewers that came with it — would make Seinfeld the most-watched show on TV. Even Sunday Night Football, last season’s biggest eyeball-grabber, earned a rating of just 8.2 — two full points above the season’s second place show, CBS’s The Big Bang Theory.
But before the days of DVRs, increased cable competition, and the vast wilds of the Internet, a 9.7 rating wasn’t so impressive — especially coming after weeks of dwindling viewership. NBC would have been within its rights to can the show then and there. Instead, the network chose to hold onto Seinfeld — after putting it on a two-month hiatus.
The rest, of course, is history. Barring a few dips here and there, Seinfeld returned stronger than ever, racking up ratings as well as Emmy nominations. By season 5, it was the third-most watched show on television; by season 6 it was number one.
The Seinfeld story should be a comfort to any showrunner with a beloved but under-watched program. Unfortunately, according to NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, it’s a trajectory that’s just not possible anymore. “With deteriorating ratings the tolerance for a show that’s struggling is just shorter than it’s ever been,” she told TV critics at TCA over the weekend. “So it’s frustrating for all of us that you can’t take the time to nurture a show and grow the audience as much as you might want to.”
Salke was speaking about The New Normal and Go On, two sitcoms with so-so critical reception and low ratings that didn’t survive to see second seasons. Perhaps she’s right about them; both boasted a lot of talent both on camera and behind the scenes, and with another year of tweaking, both could have become more successful than they ultimately were.
Look at NBC’s schedule in recent years, though, and you’ll see that it’s sort of the poster child for nurturing shows that aren’t immediate hits. Both 30 Rock and Friday Night Lights premiered in 2006, attracting small but dedicated fan bases — and failing to break into the top or even the middle of Nielsen’s ratings list. NBC held onto both shows all the same, renewing them over and over even as their meager audiences continued to dwindle.
Neither ever achieved massive ratings in the same way that Seinfeld had. But both Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock did win plenty of accolades, giving NBC a reputation as the best network nobody was watching.
Parks and Recreation and Parenthood are both still carrying that torch on the Peacock today. Though Parks‘s first season was creatively iffy and barely watched, NBC saw enough potential in it to greenlight another season — a good thing, since Parks has been the most consistently funny sitcom on TV for the past four years. And Parenthood — another series from FNL creator Jason Katims — has been hanging on by a thread since 2010, never managing more than 5.73 million viewers in its most recent season. Still, the drama got a renewal for next year all the same, meaning that NBC hasn’t totally lost the nurturing gene that helped Seinfeld flourish.
What’s more, the peacock isn’t alone in that respect. In 2012, Fox gave New Girl another chance despite a first season marked by dwindling ratings. The sitcom flourished in its second season, drawing buzz for its big will they/won’t they arc — even if its numbers never ended up rising. ABC is similarly nurturing the low-rated Suburgatory, bringing it back for a third season, albeit in January — and the net does seem to have a “three strikes” policy when it comes to poorly-rated TV shows. (See the late, lamented Happy Endings.)
Person of Interest, too, wasn’t a success out the gate, at least not by CBS’s higher standards. Its third episode drew just 11.57 million viewers. The crime drama won a full season order and a renewal anyway, leading it to end last season as one of the top scripted shows on TV.
So maybe the concept of nurturing isn’t dead after all. It’s just gotten a little more selective — particularly on NBC, where any hits at all are few and far between. While this could be worrisome for the fall’s new series, it also indicates that ratings woes could have a silver lining: Just make a good product that people enjoy, and the numbers may not end up mattering — at least for a few seasons.