Digital Entertainment

Will Netflix Buy the Streaming Rights to Seinfeld?


Jason Alexander and Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld

Photograph by Castle Rock Entertainment via Everett Collection

Jason Alexander and Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld

(Corrects the name of company that syndicates Seinfeld in the fourth paragraph.)

The Internet was all in a tizzy Friday over a pressing issue of home entertainment. Will you soon be able to binge-watch Seinfeld episodes on Netflix (NFLX)? To paraphrase an infamous line from the hit sitcom, the prospect of Seinfeld on demand is real and it’s spectacular.

On Thursday, Jerry Seinfeld, the star of the eponymous sitcom, suggested as much during a live Q & A on Reddit. “Jerry, any word on Seinfeld coming to Netflix?” asked a fan. “There are so many people who still have not experienced Seinfeld firsthand, and having it available through Netflix will surely be the easiest way.”

“You are a very smart and progressive person,” Seinfeld replied. “These conversations are presently taking place.”

Since the sitcom’s disappointing finale first aired on NBCUniversal (CMCSA) in 1998, Seinfeld has enjoyed a robust second (and third, and fourth …) life in reruns across the broadcast and cable TV landscape. Along the way, the series, which was produced by a unit of Time Warner (TWX) and is distributed by Sony Pictures Television (SNE), has racked up more than $3 billion worth of revenue from the series, making it one of the most valuable TV franchises in history. But despite Seinfeld’s seeming ubiquity, all nine seasons of the show have never been available on demand for streaming viewers.

That could change in September.

Chuck Larsen, the president of October Moon Television, an independent consulting firm that specializes in syndication rights, points out that Seinfeld’s current syndication deals for both cable and broadcast TV stations expire this fall. The expiration of those agreements, he says, will likely put into play Seinfeld’s currently untapped “subscription video on demand” (SVOD) rights.

In the past, streaming subscription services such as Netflix might have balked at paying the huge syndication fees commanded by a top-shelf sitcom like Seinfeld. These days, with its number of subscribers topping 50 million, Netflix is spending lavishly on programming. An exclusive deal for Seinfeld would likely help Netflix in its ongoing effort to differentiate its services from those of its emerging rival Amazon.com (AMZN).

Seinfeld could be a big draw. “There are only a handful of what we tend to refer to as A-level sitcoms in our business,” Larsen says. “Seinfeld is certainly one of them. Full House, Happy Days, I Love Lucy, Two-and-a-Half Men, Everybody Loves Raymond—there haven’t been that many.”

“There’s something about comedy,” he adds. “People will watch it over and over and over again. That’s why comedy is so profitable in syndication and distribution. It repeats well. You don’t do that with dramas. I saw Schindler’s List once, and it was great. But I really don’t want to see it again.”

Acquiring the on-demand rights for Seinfeld probably won’t come cheap. Most sitcom rights get significantly less expensive the longer the series has been off the air, but Seinfeld’s depreciation has been less dramatic than that of most shows. The series even managed to reverse the trend during its early years of syndication.

According to Broadcasting and Cable:

In 2010, Time Warner … reported at an investors’ conference that Seinfeld made $598 million in its first broadcast cycle, $984 million in its second cycle and $703 million in the third. On top of that, cable paid $180 million for the show in its first cycle, $113 million in the second and $86 million in the third.

If Netflix does acquire the SVOD rights, Larsen says, the series will continue to air on broadcast and cable television. Even so, the streaming rights will likely be quite valuable.

Netflix could have some competition. Once upon a time, not long ago, Netflix was essentially unrivaled in the SVOD bidding arena, Larsen says. But these days, Netflix faces a new crop of competitors, particularly Amazon, but also Hulu and Comcast, that might have interest in landing Seinfeld on demand for their paying customers. “This would be the first time it would be on subscription,” Larsen says. “I’d look for a pretty good price tag on that.”

And while it’s likely that Seinfeld fans will soon have access to all 180 episodes somewhere online sometime soon, no deal has been announced yet. In other words, serenity now.

Gillette_190
Gillette is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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