Networks are unlikely to deliver another 'ER'
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Chicago Tribune (MCT) - You can imagine the long afternoon for advertisers at New York's Lincoln Center in May 1994. NBC was unveiling its fall slate. Network execs talked up such fare as "The Cosby Mysteries," "Earth 2," "Madman of the People" and "The Martin Short Show."
In the mix was a new ensemble comedy that seemed to want to be "Seinfeld" but with a younger, more attractive cast _ not a Kramer in the bunch. Its highlight clip was OK, but string together the three best jokes of most sitcoms and they'll seem funny. That turned out to be "Friends."
It was the medical drama that got the big applause and was what the Madison Avenue-types were talking about as they headed to the post-presentation cocktail reception. Not everyone loved it, but its promo looked, sounded and just felt different. That was "ER."
"ER," which ends its historic 15-season run on Thursday night, would become TV's No. 1 drama in each of its first seven seasons.
Although its audience has dwindled of late, averaging less than 10 million viewers a week, "ER" had almost 50 million viewers per episode at its peak, despite making its debut well into the era of ever-expanding viewing options. These days, "Dancing with the Stars" and "American Idol" don't quite draw quite that many _ combined.
The final "ER" also heralds an end for NBC, if not all network TV.
NBC is getting out of the 10 p.m. EDT drama business, giving that hour to Jay Leno on Monday through Friday in the fall. Leno's talk show will cost less than a drama, so even if it doesn't produce a big audience, it can be profitable. The network also saves on developing new dramas, most of which never air.
Even success can be expensive.
In the heyday of "ER," Warner Bros. negotiated a staggering license fee of $13 million per episode from NBC, which could hardly afford to see the show, its viewers and advertising cash head to another network.
NBC might have gotten away with a cheaper bill, but it balked at Warner's offer to negotiate a long-term deal not long after the series' phenomenal launch, figuring the show would fade before it was actually necessary to secure the series. It didn't.
But NBC and Warner Bros., which also delivered it "Friends," had gotten off to a bad start on "ER."
Leslie Moonves now heads CBS Corp. but played a major role at Warner Bros. in developing "ER" into something more affecting than the old Michael Crichton script no network wanted.
NBC execs Warren Littlefield and Don Ohlmeyer were wary of audience testing the studio provided, showing "ER" to be off-the-charts popular. Moonves' team grumbled but retested the show before NBC would buy the results and the series.
As it turned out, it wasn't 1994's only rookie network medical drama set at a Chicago hospital airing at 10 p.m. Thursdays. Many critics, preferring the cerebral to emotion, actually gave the edge to David E. Kelley's "Chicago Hope" on CBS over the frenetic gang at County General on NBC.
Trivia buffs also will recall a previous "E/R" in prime time 10 years earlier, a sitcom set at Chicago's Clark Street Hospital. One cast member: A 20-something named George Clooney.
"ER" had been on the air only a few weeks, back in the fall of 1994, when the crew from E! Entertainment Television set up in my home office in Los Angeles to interview me on the new prime-time juggernaut for one of those quickie specials they do. I was the "expert."
For maybe an hour, I was a sound-bite machine. I went on about how and why I thought the show had shot to the top of the ratings. I talked about the deep ensemble cast led by Anthony Edwards and Clooney, the writers' uncanny knack for tapping into raw emotion, the realism of its language and those long, unblinking documentary-style shots that rushed viewers from crisis to crisis.
The producer tried to prompt me into a blurb that would be promo gold: Where did "ER" fit in the pantheon of TV medical dramas? Was it the greatest ever?
I paused to consider the previous half-century and all it had given us on television. I took a quick inventory of "Medical Center" to "Marcus Welby, M.D.," "Ben Casey" to "Dr. Kildare." My answer?
Too soon to tell.
Phil Rosenthal: email@example.com
© 2009, Chicago Tribune.
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