Why Seinfeld Is Stuck on Sites About Nothing

PORTLAND, Ore.(TheStreet) -- Fans of Seinfeld are angry this day, my friends: Like old men trying to return soup at a deli.

It's been 16 years since Jerry Seinfeld's little show about nothing aired its last episode on NBC, yet the technology being used to air its reruns is as dated as Jerry's high-waisted jeans, monochromatic shirts and portable phone with extendable antenna. Episodes of Seinfeld have been trapped on DVD and in syndication for years, and the only way to stream them is either through the site of a syndication partner -- like Time Warner's (TWX) TBS, for example -- or through Sony Pictures Entertainment's (a unit of Sony  (SNE)) Crackle site and app. Even there, you can only view 10 episodes at a time.

In either scenario, fans are streaming episodes trimmed for syndication and laden with as many commercials as they'd see during their broadcast time slots. At a time when viewers can watch the entire run of AMC's Breaking Bad on Netflix  (NFLX) without commercials and can binge watch HBO's The Sopranos through Amazon  (AMZN) without interruption, commercial-laden Crackle is about as good a vehicle for Seinfeld as the '90s Saab that Jerry drove in his sitcom.

However, the winds of change are finally blowing against the windows of Monk's Cafe. When asked during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session last month if his show would ever make it to Netflix, Jerry Seinfeld replies "You are a very smart and progressive person. These conversations are presently taking place."

In the meantime, why is Seinfeld -- one of the most critically acclaimed and watched shows in television history -- lingering in technological purgatory? As always, the answer lies beneath a large pile of money.

Distribution deals through both Sony and Time Warner have been incredibly kind to Seinfeld and its namesake. It made more than $3.1 billion in syndication since the last episode aired in 1998. Any single episode of the show's 180-episode run has generated $17 million during that span. The last syndication cycle alone earned Seinfeld and co-creator Larry David $400 million apiece.

Just to put those earnings into perspective, Electronic Arts  (EA) -- the video game producer perhaps best known for its Madden NFL series -- made just $2 billion since 1998. Since the Bureau of Economic Analysis changed the way its calculates of the nation’s gross domestic product last year, long-running shows like Seinfeld now qualify as investments. It's part of a $70 billion corner of the economy.

It's also a price that Seinfeld's syndication partners are more than willing to pay to help bolster their own properties. Though TBS has a slew of original productions, much of its viewing schedule still relies heavily on repeats of television cornerstones like Big Bang Theory, The Office, Friends and Family Guy. Seinfeld is not only still a part of that mix, but feature heavily in its summer lineup -- which included a 25th anniversary celebration of the show featuring its Top 25 episodes and the #seinfeld25 discussion on Twitter. Time Warner only holds the show's international distribution rights, but it isn't in any hurry to pull a TBS favorite from the lineup.

Sony, meanwhile, uses Seinfeld and Jerry Seinfeld himself as the main draws for its Crackle. The commercial-heavy streaming service not only manages to stream double the amount of Seinfeld episodes as TBS.com does in a week, but it's given Jerry Seinfeld a new vehicle with its popular interview series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. That show garnered an Emmy nomination last year and is among the nominees at this weekend's Emmys.

This has been a sweet deal for Seinfeld, Time Warner and Sony alike, but Seinfeld seems to know it can get even sweeter. Back in November, 21st Century Fox  (FOXA) landed the exclusive syndication rights to The Simpsons, which has spent its last 24 seasons airing original episodes on Fox and syndicating to the highest bidder. The FXX deal is believed to be worth $750 million in its current state and includes full digital rights to all episodes. As Fox adds new episodes to the mix, the value of FXX's deal could swell to $1 billion over the next decade.

FXX is running a marathon of all 552 episodes and The Simpsons Movie from Aug. 21 through Sept. 1 and plans to launch the Simpsons World app in October. That will give fans mobile access to all Simpsons episodes, a search function that locates specific jokes and scenes. It will require a cable subscription to access, but it'll be available on Apple iOS devices, Google Android devices, Samsung televisions and Blu-ray players and Microsoft XBox 360 and XBox One consoles.

That's now the template for the digital future of long-running shows, and it's one that Seinfeld can embrace under just the right circumstances. Seinfeld may not get its own digital universe, but its syndication rights and those of digitally absent television mainstays like Friends could become vital features to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime or even Verizon's Redbox Instant.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

 
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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