The Critics: Cries & Whispers

IN AMERICA, last Thursday was a bad night for burglars, restaurateurs and every TV channel apart from NBC, as 75 million people (according to Dennis Lim, see American Graffiti page 10) stayed in to witness the final episode of Seinfeld. In Britain, the world's most popular sitcom isn't quite such a hit. Only a million people watch, the reason being that BBC2, instead of giving it a plum slot at 9.30 on a Friday night, sneaks it on to our screens at 11.15 on a Tuesday, in a double bill with The Larry Sanders Show - snooker/football/ party conferences permitting.

Every journalist who has ever written about television has raged about this unfathomable scheduling (including, if you want to be pernickety about it, me. But I've grown to appreciate Seinfeld's being where it is. While BBC2 has buried many a gem at two in the morning, an 11.15pm slot hardly restricts Seinfeld to insomniacs. No, it's an urbane, man-about- town sort of time for a programme to be on. You can enjoy an evening out all the more, knowing that you'll be home for the start of Seinfeld. The real question is why there isn't more must-see TV on this late. Friday's bilateral mid-evening laugh-fest is all very well, but it does force a sizeable percentage of the population into an obscure branch of orthodox Judaism: thanks to Friends, Frasier, Ellen, Father Ted and Shooting Stars, I haven't left my armchair after sunset on a Friday since 1994.

Be thankful too that Seinfeld and Sanders aren't on Channel 4, where they would be interrupted by commercials, instead of being the high-concentration 45-minute comedy fix they are on BBC2. Worse still, each segment would be bookended by mini- sketches from the show's "sponsors", surely the most extreme torture that television has yet devised. I didn't think anything could be more hideous than the giggly, shampoo-flogging bimbettes who fight over a sofa before and after Friends, but that was before I saw the fifth-rate Woody Allenisms that separate the ad breaks from Frasier. They must have done wonders for the ratings of Have I Got News For You, which is on BBC2 at the same time.

Infinitely preferable is the quaint way that BBC2 welcomes us to The Larry Sanders Show. Not only do the continuity announcers warn us about the rude words, presumably mistaking 20-to-midnight for the nation's teatime, but they do so in a sweetly sheepish, jocular way. Lord Reith must smile down from television heaven whenever he hears "We're warming up for some heated language on The Larry Sanders Show!" Or my personal favourite: "Ouch! A certain ego is being severely dented now on BBC2. It's enough to make anyone swear!" At a different time or on a different channel, these words just wouldn't be right.