When Seinfeld leaves the air will NBC fall from #1?

When Michael Jordan retired from basketball a few years ago, a waggish sportswriter noted that the Chicago Bulls were just one player away from being a dominating team.

Here’s our early scouting report on next fall’s TV season: NBC is just one show away from being a dominating network.

Unless you spent the holidays aboard the Mir space station, you’ve probably already heard that after nine seasons, Jerry Seinfeld has decided to pull the plug on his top-rated sitcom in May. The loss of Seinfeld leaves a Jordan-size void not only in NBC’s lineup but in the TV landscape as a whole. So the question of the moment isn’t who will be affected by the end of the show about nothing, but rather, Who won’t be affected? Herewith, a summary roundup of who won and who lost when Jerry Sein-ed off.

LOSER: NBC How much will the Peacock network miss Seinfeld? Let us count the ways: $200 million in ad revenues every year, according to industry estimates. An average of 30 million viewers per week. Three consecutive years as TV’s No. 1 comedy. And one gigantic programming hole.

The network’s first and foremost concern is to plug its newfound Thursday 9 p.m. gap. Frasier is probably NBC’s next-strongest sitcom, but moving it from its successful Tuesday slot would mean disrupting two nights. 3rd Rock From the Sun is also a possibility, but it has withered on the vine since it moved to Wednesdays this fall, and advertising execs don’t think it has the oomph to fill Seinfeld‘s shoes. (Right about now, NBC Entertainment chief Warren Littlefield is reaching for another Tums.) That leaves Friends as the strongest contender to take over as the Must See TV anchor. Friends‘ 8 p.m. slot could then be filled by either 3rd Rock or Mad About You, which has worked everywhere the network has tried it. (Also, NBC is said to be already planning on moving the dreadful Union Square out of its post-Friends position for the up-and-comer Just Shoot Me.)

That’s not such a bad configuration. ”Between Friends and ER, they still have the night,” says Grey Advertising senior vice president Jon Mandel. A rival network exec agrees: ”NBC won’t come crashing down.” The network should also see a short-term benefit to Seinfeld‘s departure. Although the bulk of the show’s ad inventory is sold out for the season, look for NBC to demand big bucks for the (undoubtedly hour-long) finale—possibly in the Super Bowl range of $1 million per 30-second spot.

WINNER: FOX According to one NBC exec, once Fox Entertainment president Peter Roth heard the news that Seinfeld was quitting, he promptly sent the comedian a thank-you gift. Understandable, given that on Thursday nights Fox trails NBC by a hairbreadth in the all-important race for the 18-to-49 demographic. Neither ABC, which has many other holes in its week to worry about, nor CBS, which has opted to target older audiences, will likely challenge NBC’s Thursday hegemony. But Seinfeld‘s departure may be just the opening Fox needs: Already there is speculation that animated sensation King of the Hill might move to a Thursday slot at 8 p.m. If that sounds foolhardy, keep in mind that the last time a comedy held its own against NBC’s Thursday lineup was when Fox put up The Simpsons against The Cosby Show in 1990. D’oh!

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