The end of a TV era looms: Seinfeld, the celebrated show about nothing that was really something special where critics, Emmy voters and loyal fans were concerned, will end its storied nine-season run this May, its namesake star and executive producer tells Friday's New York Times.

For the moment, at least, call Jerry Seinfeld, the Grinch Who Stole the Day After Christmas.

"I wanted to end the show on the same kind of peak we've been doing it on for years," the 42-year-old comedian says, in the Times. "I wanted the end to be from a point of strength. I wanted the end to be graceful."

And so, this prime-time season's most-watched sitcom--by one numbers-crunching stat, the most-watched TV series ever--will film its last episode this spring. Not even a truckload of money--a reported promise of $5 million an episode to Mr. Seinfeld by NBC--could convince its star to stay on board and dream up new Manhattan misadventures for Elaine, George, Kramer, Newman, the Soup Nazi, Bubble Boy, et al.

"It was an extremely difficult thing to do," Seinfeld tells the newspaper. "This show has been the greatest love affair of my life. But we were all together on it. We all felt we wanted to leave in love."

NBC, meanwhile, was maintaining a brave front.

"To keep a show of this caliber at its peak has been a great undertaking. We respect Jerry's decision that at the end of this season it's time to move on," the network said, in a statement.

NBC may "respect" the move; but it certainly can't like it. A prime-time schedule without Seinfeld is not a pretty prospect for the peacock. The series is the most successful of the 1990s. Since 1993, Seinfeld has rock-solid anchored NBCs Must-See Thursday night lineup, the cornerstone of the top-rated network's success--and, of late, the lone bright spot on its increasingly pot-holed schedule.

Seinfeld, simply, has meant the world to NBC. It brings ratings (currently the No. 2 show, behind ER), money (pulling in a reported $200 million in annual profits) and respect (multiple Emmys, repeated declarations of "instant" classic status).

The loss of Seinfeld looks to be a serious blow to NBC's continued ratings' dominance, and a big boost to the cause of the makers of ER, who are looking to extract a ton o' money from the suddenly hit-starved network this spring--or else jump to a rival.

Seinfeld announced last month that he was giving himself a 30-day deadline to decide the fate of his series, once and for all. If money wasn't an issue for staying, maybe it's because he's already made a fortune--earning $94 million last year, according to Forbes magazine, and drawing a reported salary of $1 million an episode this year.

Seinfeld debuted on NBC on July 5, 1989, in the guise of The Seinfeld Chronicles. (That pilot did not feature Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Elaine, although the rest of the characters remained the same--except for one minor detail, Kramer was called Kessler.) After a short run in the summer of 1990, the series was granted a regular time slot in January 1991.

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