How Much Did Seinfeld Make – “People don’t turn down money – that’s what separates us from the animals,” Jerry Seinfeld said as his character in a 1991 episode of Seinfeld. At that point, Seinfeld himself was making a comfortable $40,000 per episode as the lead in his two-year-old sitcom, which recently landed in the Top 50 in the Nielsen ratings.
Three decades later, Jerry Seinfeld has gotten more chances to turn down money than his character could ever dream of. Seinfeld was a huge hit while it was on the air — the comedian earned $267 million in 1998 alone — and then made billions after that year’s finale, first through record-breaking union deals and now as a streaming juggernaut. On Oct. 1, the sitcom arrives on Netflix globally as part of a five-year deal reportedly north of $500 million, thanks to both its enduring observational humor and the escalating streaming war in which classic TV shows are used as a key weapon. . Here’s how the ’90s sitcom continued to turn a profit — and how it fits into the rapidly changing television ecosystem.
How Much Did Seinfeld Make
Given that Seinfeld is famously a show about nothing—it mostly features four friends from New York City sitting around complaining and undermining each other—it’s not particularly surprising that the show initially struggled to win over audiences and executives. The sitcom, which was co-created by Seinfeld and Larry David, premiered on NBC in July 1989—typically a month for networks to drop smaller projects—and originally ran for just four episodes. The second season received such poor ratings that it was put on hiatus for two months.
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But with the beloved Cheers serving as its flagship, Seinfeld soon became one of America’s most popular sitcoms. According to Nielsen, by the show’s ninth and final season, Seinfeld was the No. 1 primetime series, earning about $200 million a year for NBC. Jerry Seinfeld took home $1 million per episode—down from his early $40,000—and his three co-stars (Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine, Jason Alexander as George, and Michael Richards as Kramer) earned $600,000 per episode. . The show’s finale was watched by 76.3 million viewers, nearly matching the ratings for that year’s Super Bowl.
Could have easily continued its incredible run—in fact, NBC offered to bump Seinfeld’s salary from $1 million to $5 million per episode. But he turned down the offer, saying he wanted to focus more on his personal life. (A few years later, Seinfeld would infamously berate Larry King on air for not knowing his show wasn’t canceled.)
During Seinfeld’s time in the ’90s, the television landscape was changing thanks to the mass adoption of cable. By the end of the decade, nearly 80% of American households had access to cable, with channels like HBO and MTV establishing themselves as cultural centers for larger audiences. Executives sensed that the era of over-the-top blockbuster network sitcoms was waning, making proven hits even more valuable. In 1998, Turner Broadcasting paid a record sum—over $1 million per episode—to air reruns of Seinfeld on TBS. “This may be the last big hit sitcom to come off the network ever,” TBS president Bill Burke told New York s.
Seinfeld reruns continued to earn solid Nielsen ratings. By 2010, the show had grossed $2.7 billion in reruns, according to Barry Mayer, president of Warner Brothers Entertainment. Typically, deals with syndicates are scaled back or ended once a show loses cultural relevance — but in 2019, Viacom was still willing to pay around $200,000 to $250,000 per episode for the show’s cable rights.
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These reruns — which totaled 180 episodes — made many people extremely wealthy, including Donald Trump’s former right-hand man Steve Bannon, who worked in the entertainment business in the 90s and earned a stake in the show. “We calculated what it would do for us if it got to the union,” Bannon told Bloomberg in 2015. “We were wrong by a factor of five.”
But the show’s runaway financial success also caused tension between its stars. In 2003, Louis-Dreyfus, Richards and Alexander refused to participate in the filming of a DVD series of the show because they felt they were being exploited. After a standoff, Seinfeld and the producers agreed to cut the trio from royalties.
While Seinfeld and David would probably be comfortable making union money for the rest of their lives, the entertainment industry is about to change once again. In the mid-2010s, new streaming platforms invested millions of dollars to build deep libraries to bring subscribers into their folds.
In 2015, after a bidding war with players including Amazon and Yahoo, Sony Pictures Television agreed to a domestic deal reported to be between $130 million and $180 million with Hulu over six years. “I mean, you could just put the DVD in, but I guess nobody wanted to do that,” Jerry Seinfeld said at Hulu’s launch that year during the release.
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Netflix probably wasn’t too concerned about not having Seinfeld in its catalog, as the streamer dwarfed all others thanks to first-mover advantage, and its comedy bench was formidable, with viewers able to switch between The Office, Friends and Cheers . But big movie companies, sensing a change in the winds, began building their own streaming platforms and going after properties they owned the original rights to. In 2019, WarnerMedia outbid Netflix by paying $425 million to put Friends on a streaming service that didn’t yet exist (now HBO Max). Similarly, NBCUniversal essentially paid itself $500 million to grab The Office for the gestation platform Peacock.
Seinfeld’s deal with Hulu expired that year, and with WarnerMedia partially owning the show, many forecasters expected the company to make a big offer to move it to HBO Max. But Netflix has surpassed not only them, but also Amazon, Viacom and NBCUniversal.
Tim Westcott, a media analyst at OMDIA, says Netflix shelled out a huge amount of money for Seinfeld for several reasons. “The main reason people subscribe is choice. You have to have a large volume of attractive content in addition to the featured originals, where there is no guarantee that they will be hits,” he says. By comparison, Seinfeld is a familiar property; it is comforting, broken up into short episodes, and less so in that its jokes are based on social situations as opposed to historical events.
Seinfeld also has the potential to appeal across generations: It could pique the interest of older, more moneyed subscribers who are rewatching the show after decades, as well as a younger generation only familiar with the show as a cultural landmark — and he might be willing to feed all 180 episodes. In 2018, The Office and Friends were the two most-watched shows on Netflix, with users watching a total of 85 billion minutes, according to Nielsen. A younger generation of viewers, especially pop star Billie Eilish, were not shy about their delight at discovering these long-time classics for the first time.
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Netflix’s Seinfeld deal also helps cement their relationship with Jerry himself. The platform already had the rights to his walking talk show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and financed two stand-up specials, Jerry Before Seinfeld and 23 Hours to Kill. In June, Seinfeld announced that he would be working on a new Netflix movie called Unfrosted, inspired by a joke he made about Pop-Tarts.
“This Seinfeld deal could even help lead to future projects with Seinfeld himself, as well as the writers and other talent on the show,” says Westcott. “It’s a good investment for a number of reasons.”
Netflix will need Seinfeld to perform well, as the lead the company has built over its competitors is closing fast. Disney+ has amassed the equivalent of more than half of Netflix’s 209 million subscribers despite being available for less than two years, buoyed by mainstream juggernauts like The Mandalorian and Loki. HBO Max is also coming on strong thanks to its deep catalog of revered TV dramas and blockbuster movies like Godzilla vs. Kong. The numbers for the second quarter of this year for Netflix show that their growth has slowed significantly. Their share of worldwide demand interest, a metric created by Parrot Analytics, fell below 50% for the first , and they lost 430,000 subscribers in the United States and Canada.
Netflix also sat on the sidelines as big companies merged left and right, trying to pool money, talent and IP. Discovery merged with WarnerMedia, while Amazon bought Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Westcott says Netflix’s lack of diversification makes them more vulnerable than its competitors. “The studios have other businesses to fall back on: linear channels, theatrical films, theme parks and licensing. And streaming is a small part of the overall empires of Amazon and Apple,” he says. “Netflix is a little vulnerable in that if their streaming business doesn’t continue to grow to the extent it has, or if they start losing subscribers, they don’t have another business to fall back on.”
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And then there’s the concern that in a rapidly changing world driven by social media, Seinfeld’s humor could become stale. A few
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