Television events just aren't what they used to be.
The series finales of Friends on Thursday and Frasier on May 13 are the TV events of this season. Historically, however, they will be little more than another night in front of the tube.
The M*A*S*H ratings record will likely stand forever, for the same reason the farewells of Friends and Frasier have no chance to crash the all-time Top 10 -- and probably not even the Top 100.
The TV universe has changed since the curtain came down on M*A*S*H.
Cable programming was in its infancy then, with a few channels and unalluring programs. Broadcasters derided cable as the medium of reruns, religion and rasslin'. Cable ratings were so minuscule, they were all but impossible to quantify.
There were no shows like Sopranos, Sex and the City, Shield, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or South Park. Rodeo from Mesquite, Texas, was a weekly prime-time attraction on ESPN, which did not have the rights to any major sports league. National cable and satellite penetration was in low double figures, compared with almost 90 percent now.
Families bade farewell together to M*A*S*H. But with Nielsen figures showing that 42 percent of American households have three or more sets, these days kids are likely in one room watching Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel while the sports fan is watching a big game on ESPN. Other members of the clan could be tuned to one of the news channels, a movie, Comedy Central or Home and Garden TV.
As cable grew up over the past 20 years, the only new entry into the Top 20 was the night Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding faced off in the 1994 Olympics.
Even the Super Bowl doesn't have the magnetism it once did. Four Super Bowls are in Nielsen's Top 10, the most recent in 1986.
TV's last ballyhooed finale, Seinfeld in 1998, ranks 65th, a tie with The Cosby Show farewell in 1987. Cheers in 1993 pushed up to No. 22.
Given the fragmented TV universe, Friends will have managed a sensational feat if it is able to match Seinfeld's ranking. Frasier, a more boutique-style comedy, might not make even this season's Top 20.
"Friends' finale might merit the cover of Newsweek," said John R. Rash of Campbell-Mithun, a company that spends about $100 million a year on TV advertising for clients. "Frasier might merit the cover of TV Week."
During its final season, Seinfeld averaged a 21.7 rating, a figure it almost doubled on closing night with 41.3.
Friends' average for this season is 12.8, considered a landmark hit even though roughly seven out of eight homes in America don't watch it. As recently as 1995, Friends' 2003-2004 rating would not have been good enough to make the season-long Top 20.
If Friends triples its season-long average Thursday, it won't crack the all-time Top 100.
Warren Littlefield, a former NBC Entertainment president, programmed NBC when Friends and Frasier made their debuts. He thinks Friends could exceed expectations.
"Friends is going to be a huge event," said Littlefield, now an independent producer. "A lot of people have a tremendous passion for the characters, and they want to say goodbye."
Littlefield cited two examples close to home. His daughter was 12 and his son 9 when Friends had its premiere on Sept. 22, 1994.
Friends, Frasier finales won't set records in expanded TV universe
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