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'Seinfeld': 25 years of making beaucoup bucks

Seinfeld
NBC Universal
Seinfeld

It has been almost two decades since the last episode of "Seinfeld" aired, and the record-breaking television show is still a cash cow.

This weekend is the 25 year anniversary of the first episode of "Seinfeld" in its current form—not counting the poorly-received "The Seinfeld Chronicles" pilot episode that was aired but not picked up by the network the year before. After a finale that drew Super-Bowl-level viewership in 1998, the show embarked on a record-breaking series of syndication cycles that continue to this day.

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Successful television shows typically are sold for two to three cycles of re-runs, but "Seinfeld" is already in an unprecedented fifth cycle, and continues to hold its own against new generations of syndicated shows. Overall, more people have watched Seinfeld as a re-run than watched it when it was the most popular show on television.

NBC initially tried "Seinfeld" in several time slots, finding that the show performed poorly against ABC's "Home Improvement." Yet when the network moved the show mid-season into the Thursday night slot after "Cheers," it took off, with its audience growing by almost 60 percent in only a few weeks.

"This probably means that a catastrophe is imminent, that something terrible will emerge from this," executive producer Larry David told the Los Angeles Times the month the show's fortunes shifted.

Instead, the show picked up the coveted 18-to-34 year old viewership, and saw its advertising rates skyrocket. According to surveys of ad buyers by Advertising Age, ad rates grew by an average of 24 percent each year after that—much faster than even the audience—reaching more than half a million in the last season and almost $2 million for final episode slots.

The show generated an average of more than $200 million per season in profit for NBC, or 10 million per episode, for a total of almost $2 billion.

Syndication takes the cake

"Seinfeld"'s broadcast earnings were impressive, but as of last year the show had earned even more—$3.1 billion, according to the Financial Times—in syndication deals.

According to trade publication Broadcasting and Cable, the show made about $2.3 billion on the first three cycles, in some cases charging more than $5 million per episode. On top of that, cable channels paid another $379 million. That leaves $400 million in repeat fees for the last two cycles—and "Seinfeld" is barely slowing.

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The show still brings in a household share of 2 percent, according to Nielsen. That's not much less than more recent sitcom syndications like "How I Met Your Mother" (around 2.2 percent) or "Modern Family" (2.7). In 2003, at the peak of the most lucrative re-run cycle, "Seinfeld" produced $156 million in ad revenue, according to AdAge. Last year, over a decade later, it still pulled in $76 million, according to Kantar Media.

Not bad for a 25-year-old show.

Earnings move online

Streaming video giant Hulu announced at the end of April that it was making a deal for the subscription video on demand rights for the show for around $875,000 an episode. That's another $160 million for Sony, Time Warner and the creators of "Seinfeld."

Hulu had to outbid Amazon and Yahoo for the show, according to the Wall Street Journal, and Netflix had also expressed interest in the rights.

It looks like the "show about nothing" will continue to make money until at least 2020.

DISCLOSURE: NBC is part of NBC Universal, as is CNBC.