'SEINFELD' FINALE COULD SET RECORD FOR PRIME TIME: ONE NETWORK BUYER SAYS NBC MAY BE ASKING UP TO 1.5 MIL FOR 30-SECOND SPOT

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The series finale of NBC's "Seinfeld" could command the highest ad rates in the history of prime-time TV-possibly as much as $1.5 million for a 30-second commercial.

While star Jerry Seinfeld's decision to call it quits after this year will deliver a financial blow to the peacock network next fall-the show delivers $200 million in annual ad revenue to the network-NBC is expected to squeeze every last dollar from the hit sitcom while it can.

SUPER BOWL SHARES

"We're talking about Super Bowl" shares for the "Seinfeld" finale, "so I expect Super Bowl pricing," said one agency media buyer.

"If NBC comes out of the box with an asking price of as much as $1.5 million, which would be the most expensive spot in TV history, it wouldn't surprise me," said another network TV buyer.

Ads in Super Bowl XXXII, being broadcast Jan. 25 on NBC, sold for a record $1.3 million per :30.

While some media buyers said the last episode of "Seinfeld" could pull in a rating of as high as 45, not all observers believe the last "Seinfeld" is such a sure ratings bet.

Steve Grubbs, exec VP-national TV buying at BBDO Worldwide, New York, is predicting a rating as low as 30.

Ratings reflect the percentage of TV sets in use; share, the percentage of sets tuned to individual programs. The recent "coming out" episode of ABC's "Ellen," for example, earned a 26.4 rating and a 37 share.

NOT LIKE `CHEERS'

"Even though it has clearly been the most successful sitcom in the '90s, I don't know if `Seinfeld' has the same broad appeal that `Cheers' [the fourth-most-watched finale with a 64 share and 42.3 million viewers] had," Mr. Grubbs said. "Times have changed since then, too. In today's environment, a 45 rating is awfully hard to deliver."

Still, most buyers expect the "Seinfeld" finale to be one of the medium's most-watched events. "M*A*S*H's" last episode holds the record, with 50.1 million viewers.

NBC will try to get the most it can out of the season finale for network TV's highest-price program, which averages $575,00 for a :30.

Many buyers told the network during the upfront selling season last spring that if this was the last season of "Seinfeld," they wanted in on the finale. NBC will likely honor those requests.

PRICE EROSION

Once "Seinfeld" departs, NBC is facing price erosion for the entire Thursday evening lineup because no replacement program, not even "Frasier"-currently charging an average $275,000 per :30-is likely to command the same pricing.

"There will be a definite price effect" on other Thursday NBC shows, said Larry Cole, exec VP-U.S. media director at Ogilvy & Mather, New York.

Indeed, one of the reasons "Seinfeld" and the strong lineup NBC has had on Thursdays has been so financially important to the network is that most movie studios consider the night key for films that open in theaters on Fridays. As a result, they are willing to pay a premium to advertise during Thursday night shows.

Industry insiders say the NBC program "ER," which has a contract now up for renewal at NBC, which has exclusive rights to negotiate before other networks can get involved, becomes even more important to NBC. Its pricing, $560,000 for a :30, already is a close second to "Seinfeld," and as a bookend to "Friends" allows freshman programs to be sandwiched in at higher prices.

While pundits on Madison Avenue are already guessing what NBC will put in the "Seinfeld" time slot next season-"Frasier," "Third Rock From the Sun" and "Friends" seem the best bets-one buyer said the network that might take the most advantage of the sitcom's leaving is Fox.

"They're already No. 2 in 18-to-49-year-olds during prime time for the season and, if I was them, I'd move `King of the Hill' in there," another agency media buyer said. "The show does great in that age group, and Fox would love to get some of that high-price Thursday night movie money."

"[`Seinfeld's' departure] certainly eases the pressure on the other networks," said Ogilvy & Mather's Mr. Cole.

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