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 gold standard for farewell episodes is the movie-length finale of M*A*S*H, which drew an record Nielsen rating of 60.2 on Feb. 28, 1983. More than three of five homes with TV sets were there to say goodbye to Hawkeye and the gang.
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.
"They have never missed an episode of the show. To them, the show is almost like a soap opera with jokes," Littlefield said. "It takes a Super Bowl to hit M*A*S*H-like numbers now, but Friends might be as close as you can get to a program that will unite the country."
Rash agrees, to a point.
"The Friends finale is akin to a Super Bowl in that you pay a premium for the vast national reach, right on the eve of summer when soft drinks, beers and big summer movies want to get out their messages," he said.
In other words, while the Friends audience might not measure up historically, it is an opportunity to reach more people at once than any show other than the Super Bowl would provide.
Not coincidentally, the products he cited are heavily pitched toward young adults, Friends' core audience. The obsession to serve Madison Avenue by targeting the 18- to 49-year-old audience is another reason contemporary series find it difficult to assemble an old-time audience. Viewers outside the target audience have numerous alternatives.
Rash sees this as another factor mitigating against Friends garnering record ratings.
"Its popularity and pop culture sensibilities are very high," Rash said. "But because it touched a particular cultural sensibility [young adults], its appeal has not been as broad and universal as shows such as All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore."
Littlefield says networks have no choice but to zero in on specific audiences. "You no longer own it all, so you have to define who you are as a network," he said.
NBC and ABC explicitly aim for the 18-to-49 demographic, which constitutes less than half the population. NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker says his network does not sell commercial spots on the basis of total viewers. "Our entire business is done on 18-to-49," he said.
The WB targets a younger and smaller slice of the audience: the 12- to 34-year-old viewer. Fox gears its programs toward the higher end of that demographic.
Only CBS programs for the entire audience. Not coincidentally, it has been the No. 1 network in viewers in recent years. But the power of younger demographics is illustrated by the fact that NBC sells tens of millions of dollars more in advertising with fewer viewers, because they are the "right viewers."
Few shows reach this constituency as well as Friends, which explains why NBC could afford to pay each of its six stars $1 million per episode, driving costs to about $7.5 million per episode -- roughly six to seven times the norm.
Ad rates for Friends' regular weekly episodes were among the highest on TV, peaking at more than $500,000 per 30-second spot. Reportedly, some commercial availabilities for the finale are being sold for as much as $2 million per 30-second spot. The high price for this past February's Super Bowl was $2.6 million. Top dollar for the Seinfeld finale was $1.6 million.
Littlefield takes exception to the notion that the appeal of Friends is confined to a particular demographic. As early as the show's second season, he says, he noticed an interesting phenomenon: "Nearly 25 percent of the audience was over 50."
His analysis: "Everyone was young once."
Tom Jicha can be reached at email@example.com.