Twenty-five years ago, two dozen NBC executives gathered in a screening room in Burbank to watch a new sitcom pilot starring Jerry Seinfeld. Then called The Seinfeld Chronicles, it was a 23-minute mix of the comic's stand-up routines and idiosyncratic, conversational scenes dealing with such mundane topics as doing laundry, securing the top button of one's shirt, and deciphering the intent of a woman who was spending the night in Jerry's apartment.
"It wasn't a Cosby Show or a Golden Girls screening," recalls Warren Littlefield, then second-in-command in NBC's entertainment division. "Those rooms exploded at the end with applause. But people laughed [at the pilot]. There was a sense this was something different. The room embraced the humor and the attitude."
Littlefield's boss, Brandon Tartikoff, was one of the few NBC honchos not sold on the show. "Too New York, too Jewish," said Tartikoff, himself a Jew from New York.
His assessment wasn't nearly as harsh as the opinions of the test audience. At the time, NBC typically recruited 400 households by telephone and asked them to evaluate pilots aired over unused channels on local cable systems. A researcher then called to collect reactions. The results were later summarized in an NBC research department memo obtained by TV Guide Magazine. (A copy of the actual document appears in the June 30 issue.) Here are some highlights:
"...the more typical sitcom scenes of Jerry and his friends at common day locations were negatively received — as one viewer put it, 'You can't get too excited about going to the Laundromat.'"
"No segment of the audience was eager to watch the show again."
"Viewers were unclear whether Jerry worked as a comedian or if his routines took place outside of the show as commentaries. The movement back and fourth was also considered abrupt and somewhat disorienting, particularly to older viewers."
"None of the [supporting characters] were particularly liked, and viewers felt that Jerry needed a better backup ensemble."
"Despite the slice-of-life approach, the program was considered only mildly realistic and believable, and many did not identify with the things with which Jerry was involved."
The pilot's performance was rated as "weak" (as opposed to "strong" or "moderate"). A large majority of NBC pilots received that rating, but as one veteran executive at the network recalls, "This was a weak weak."
"It was a dagger to the heart," says Littlefield. "We were afraid to go forward with something that was so strongly rejected by research."
The Seinfeld Chronicles didn't make the cut when the 1989—90 primetime schedule was announced that May. But Littlefield and other supporters of the show didn't give up. They were encouraged that viewers who watched the pilot when it first aired on July 5, 1989 (finishing second in its time period against the CBS cop drama Jake and the Fatman) did not have the regional skew that Tartikoff predicted.
NBC's rights to The Seinfeld Chronicles were set to expire at the end of the year. Despite the poor test results, Rick Ludwin, the network executive who developed the show, killed one of the Bob Hope specials budgeted for that season so the entertainment division had money to order four more episodes — an embarrassingly low number. But the series had no other takers when production company Castle Rock shopped it to other networks, so Castle Rock accepted the deal.
Seinfeld, as it was renamed, didn't show up on NBC again until May 30, 1990 and it was another three years before it became a Top 5 ratings smash. All of that waiting paid off. Still a powerhouse in syndication, Seinfeld has earned $4 billion in worldwide revenue, making it the second most lucrative show in TV history behind Friends.
So how could the testing have been so wrong? "The show was different," says Preston Beckman, who was the head of NBC's ratings research department at the time. "Nobody had seen anything like it. It wasn't unusual for poor-testing shows to get on the air, but it was very rare that they became big hits."
Jerry Seinfeld and series cocreator Larry David didn't see NBC's test report until after Seinfeld became a hit. But after they did, they found a special place for it. "Larry and I both hung it up near our toilets," Seinfeld says. "We thought if someone goes in to use this bathroom, this is something they should see. It fits that moment."