As 'Seinfeld' ends tonight, our video campfire dies


In suburban bars tonight, you can hoist a few farewell chuckles at "Seinfeld" parties. It says so on the signs on York Road. On radio station WWMX-FM (106.5), you could answer questions yesterday about "Bonanza, Tony Danza and George Costanza" with an Elaine-like "Yada yada" or a Kramerian "Giddyap." So naturally, this causes me to think of Dale Robertson.

Robertson starred on a 1950s television show called "Tales of Wells Fargo," about which I remember nothing except the stunning revelation that I was not watching it alone.

"Didja see it last night?"

Every week in the mid-1950s, those words were a gathering cry in the minutes before Mrs. Dennis' sixth-grade class at Howard Park Elementary School, a call for reliving the previous night's exploits of Wells Fargo agent Jim Hardie (and wasn't that a great, rugged, masculine name for any 11-year-old boy to grasp).

The show became our common conversational denominator. There were only three TV networks back then, only three electronic campfires around which we gathered as a community. Chances were one in three we had shared a TV experience the night before. We had been alone in our living rooms, but not really. We had witnessed the same thing simultaneously. There was something we could talk about besides baseball. Through "Wells Fargo," we were primitives beginning to discover language, and shared experience.

Now flash forward to another TV experience, largely unshared. It's the mid-1980s, a time when the Baltimore area still has the three traditional TV networks, plus Fox, plus Maryland Public Television, and the general manager of one of our local network affiliates declares that the world as we know it is about to end.

"Cable," this executive says at a staff meeting one evening. "It's gonna change everything. They've got it in Boston, and the three networks have already lost 30 percent of their audience. It's coming here now, and we'll try to hold onto our audience until the novelty wears off. But, chances are, the numbers are gonna drop."

One newsman, who entered local TV news not long after its very dawning, walked out of the meeting that night and muttered, "You know what it felt like in there? Like it was 1945, and this was a big radio station, and the general manager was saying, 'There's this new thing coming in. It's called television. And we're gonna try to tread water until the novelty goes away.' "

On the day that television's "Seinfeld" breathes its last, such words are worth recalling because, by all reports, everybody in TV now starts to tread water again while they figure out which way to start swimming.

In a front-page story this week, the New York Times quoted various network executives, standing at graveside, predicting the end of TV as we know it the moment "Seinfeld" is laid to rest tonight.

Among the biggest changes: Since the dawning of cable, the networks have resigned themselves to ever-shrinking numbers of viewers. Before cable, they split more than 90 percent of the audience. By 1994, the figure had dropped to 68 percent. Now it's 58 percent.

"We used to think the possibility existed that the erosion was going to stop," Robert A. Iger, the president of ABC, told the Times' Bill Carter. "We were silly. It's never going to stop. As you give consumers greater and greater choices, they are going to make more choices."

Someone -- and it may have been Jerry Seinfeld -- has remarked, "Women want to see what's on TV. Men want to see what else is on TV."

Thus, since the invention of the remote control, we can skim all those channels at fabulous speeds. Thus, we no longer gather at a mere three electronic campfires. Thus, you can gather the kids in class, but it's no longer a given that we've shared something the night before -- "Wells Fargo," "Seinfeld," whatever -- that everybody can talk about. Chances are, we've all been watching something different -- and maybe even stayed with it for only a few moments before spinning the dial elsewhere, looking for what else is on TV.

"Seinfeld," we're told, is the last great network show guaranteed to bring us together as a community, week in and week out, in numbers familiar to us since the proliferation of television sets in American homes half a century ago.

Does it matter? To the networks, it matters grandly. NBC expects its profits to drop from $500 million to $100 million, and CBS and ABC say they won't show any profits next year.

But it also signals more change in a culture in which the only constant is change itself. There's less that binds us. We spread ourselves thinner and thinner. We lose our common conversational denominators.

And, in a video culture of endless choices, the stations have to employ new ways to attract us: quicker sound bites, more explosions, greater car crashes, more chewing gum for the eyes.

It's not just "Seinfeld" signing off tonight. It's the snuffing out of a video campfire, and nobody's certain where Americans will gather in such embracing numbers again.

Pub Date: 5/14/98

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