When Seinfeld aired its series finale back in the spring of 1998, NBC estimated that more than 100 million people tuned in to see it in real time. That was more than a third of the country's population at the time, and among certain demographics in certain locations, it's believed that as many as 3 out of every 4 people were watching. Here's the thing, though: a whole heck of a lot of those people watched the clip show before the Seinfeld finale, too. And the ER that followed it. There didn't need to be an excuse to watch live TV. We just did.
We all know why TV ratings went irrevocably downward. The proliferation of cable outlets. The rise of DVR that freed us from being chained to time slots. VOD and streaming platforms that made every TV show eternally available. YouTube. Smartphones. But while the bulk of TV episodes have lost all their urgency, there remain a handful of TV events we do still need to watch live. Their urgency seems to exist in equal and opposite measure to the non-urgency of everything else. That's why so many of us will be watching the Super Bowl this weekend, even if we don't care about pro football.
Live TV has become the last bastion for networks to draw big audiences, which is why the Super Bowl is four or five events in one. There's the game itself, the pre-game theatrics (including the national anthem), the halftime show, and the lead-out episode (this year, it's The Masked Singer). It's why ABC can't stop tinkering with the Oscar telecast, petrified that younger audiences won't flock to movie awards when they hardly see movies anymore. It's why they just announced that Grammys-sweeper Billie Eilish will be making a special appearance.
More and more, networks seem to be coming up with reasons you have to watch live. Live musicals, live episodes, Jimmy Kimmel and Norman Lear presenting old episodes of classic sitcoms... live. But it's not just the networks that need it. Audiences need it, too. For as much as we crave the convenience of on-demand television and all streaming everything, we also want these communal viewing experiences. Social media is an imperfect vessel for this, but even under its inexact parameters (i.e. there's no easy way to make sure everybody is watching on the same timeline), Twitter allows us to gather around HBO's Sunday night shows or RuPaul's Drag Race. There is no way so many of us would have watched all those Democratic party debates over the past year if we were not craving the most basic level of communal viewing experience.
Sunday's Super Bowl will be contested between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. Are you from Kansas City or San Francisco? Are you invested in the success of one team or another? Does the way Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes plays football inspire gasps of wonder and awe? Do you even care about football? Even if you can't answer "yes" to any of these, there's a good chance you'll be watching the Super Bowl anyway. It has nothing to do with sports. It has to do with TV, and watching TV together.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.