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ER becomes a very expensive habit for NBC.

By Robert David Sullivan

JANUARY 26, 1998:  At NBC, any doubts about picking up the tab for the most expensive series in television history may have been washed away by the rehabilitation of the word Titanic. Yet though the box-office take for James Cameron's $200 million movie has given Hollywood reason to uncork the champagne bottles, the inevitable number-one rating for ER's season premiere this fall will be greeted with nothing more than sighs of relief at NBC's Rockefeller Center. It's impossible to say how many people will eventually see Titanic, but there's a pretty solid ceiling on television audiences. No one expects ER, which gets close to 40 percent of the viewing public on a good night, to become significantly more popular next season -- not unless its next live episode includes a presidential assassination or a Super Bowl game. In fact, the ratings are sure to begin a permanent decline at some point during the next three years, when NBC will be paying $13 million an episode for a total of $850 million. The network must now persuade advertisers to get on board before the ship -- er, series -- takes on water.

It was fitting that last week's episode of the hospital drama featured a character trying to kick a heroin habit. NBC's terror at the prospect of kicking ER cold turkey was almost matched by ABC's DTs nightmare of losing Monday Night Football. (The Disney-owned network paid $9.2 billion for an eight-year deal covering Monday-night games on ABC and Sunday-night games on its ESPN cable outlet.) Fear of the unknown has also kept the big-three networks from touching their late-night shows (Leno, Letterman, and Koppel) for more than four years; and their nightly news anchors haven't changed for more than 14 years.

So after Jerry Seinfeld announced the end of his series, now ranked second only to ER, television observers began speculating on which warhorse NBC will put in its place. That NBC can't risk putting a new sit-com there (like the upcoming Nathan Lane Show) is a point so obvious that no one thinks to mention it.


BROADWAY BABIES

ER, of course, was an immediate hit. But it was the last prime-time drama to crack the Top 20 in its first season (1993-'94), and it may well be the last network series to hit the number-one spot within a year of its debut. (ER's success came a year after ABC's NYPD Blue became an immediate hit, raising false hopes of a renaissance of adult dramas.) Since then, to the immense frustration of the big-three networks, new television programs have resembled Off Broadway plays rather than blockbuster movies. They generally attract small audiences and, if they're really good, articles in the Sunday New York Times. For one show out of 20, the writing and acting steadily improves, and positive word-of-mouth attracts new viewers. Perhaps it moves into a better time slot (the equivalent of a Broadway venue). By the third or fourth season -- sometimes less time for sit-coms, sometimes more for dramas -- it finally breaks into the Top 20 and is designated a solid hit.

Seinfeld and The X-Files (Fox), as is well known, followed this path. What's more, both started with episodes that are rough by the standards of later seasons -- meaning that more hype by their respective networks might not have helped turn them into hits earlier. Party of Five (Fox) is still moving up in its fourth season. From last season, King of the Hill (Fox), Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS), The Practice (ABC), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB) -- in order of current popularity -- are developing into shows with legs, thanks in no small part to laudatory articles in the Times and TV Guide. In all these cases, the phrase "cult hit" refers to the two stages of life for a successful television series.

As the number-one network, NBC stands to lose the most from this trend. It can't afford to wait for poorly rated but well-reviewed shows to find their audiences and justify the network's high advertising rates. Not surprisingly, NBC hasn't produced many shows since ER and Friends that merit Internet sites or serious discussion.

NBC's Veronica's Closet is the highest-rated new show of the current season, hammocked between Seinfeld and ER, but it's getting minimal coverage from the entertainment press -- and most of that's about star Kirstie Alley rather than the series. Ally McBeal (Fox) and South Park (Comedy Central) are creating more of a buzz, though their audience sizes would be unmitigated disasters for NBC on Thursdays.

Until NBC figures out how to develop cult shows without settling for Fox-size audiences, its future depends on a handful of old favorites -- including Frasier, Friends, Mad About You, Law & Order, and ER -- that are bound to seem a little less fresh this fall. If the network is lucky, the Broadway analogy will hold, and familiar shows will attract contented viewers. If Titanic doesn't cheer up NBC executives, maybe they should take in a matinee of Cats.


BUT IS THE SHOW ANY GOOD?

It makes sense for NBC to keep ER, but does it make sense for you to watch it? Well, it's a better television series than Titanic is a movie, and that's meant as a compliment. Mainstream television is superior to mainstream film, and that situation is not likely to change because of the higher price tag for popular series. A single episode of ER is still less expensive than the typical major-studio film, which means it has more freedom to take risks.

Indeed, ER has recently given us several well-publicized episodes that departed from its usual format. Last fall's live season opener was a huge success in attracting viewers, but most critics dismissed it as talky and slow-moving. This backlash was a bit unfair. It's a tall order for any series to revive an art form that's been dead for 40 years, and it would probably take a few attempts to get the rhythm right. If the ER producers want to make this an annual event, more power to them.

The "road" episode, in which Drs. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) and Doug Ross (George Clooney) left the rest of the cast for some male bonding in California, was a welcome respite from the show's usual hospital chaos, and it featured nice guest shots by St. Elsewhere alumnus Bonnie Bartlett and Northern Exposure's John Cullum as Greene's parents. Probably the most successful attempt to break out came in an episode from last season that was repeated this week, in which guest star Ewan McGregor held nurse Carole Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) and others hostage during a convenience-story robbery. The relationship between McGregor and Margulies, slowly evolving into mutual trust, made the episode far more satisfying than the heavy-handed Chicago Hope episode that used virtually the same plot but made the robbers part of a white supremacist group.

Chicago Hope, in fact, started out as the superior hospital series; its quirky ethical dilemmas were more interesting than the swirling cameras and overlapping dialogue of early ER episodes. But the NBC series has aged better than its CBS counterpart, whose fast-track surgeons spend far too much time agonizing over their privileged lives. The overworked staff at the downscale hospital on ER have less control over their careers and are more concerned with getting through a night shift without stumbling into a malpractice suit. It turns out that they have good reason to step on one another's lines.

At its best, ER taps into viewers' mistrust of the medical establishment, a feeling that is now prompting movie audiences to applaud Helen Hunt's rant against HMOs in As Good As It Gets. One of the series's best plots, from a few seasons ago, involved a seemingly incompetent nurse who was transferred to the ER from another part of the hospital and made several near-fatal mistakes involving patients. Few viewers felt bad when she was fired. Only later was it revealed that the hospital was transferring nurses into the ER just before their retirement age, correctly reasoning that they'd screw up and get canned before they became eligible for a full pension. That's the kind of scandal that would be covered, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, by 20/20 or Dateline NBC -- which explains why ER is the only drama on television that regularly beats those unstoppable newsmagazines in the ratings.

This season, the humanization of hospital administrators like the enjoyably prickly Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) has softened the show's edge. Still, the firing and reinstating of HIV-positive Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben) was handled shrewdly, with the viewer left unsure about the truth. Was she really fired for budgetary reasons? And was her threat of a lawsuit a fair way to win her job back? Reuben's toughened character was credible, as were the humorless gay attorneys she enlisted to take on her case.

The erratic behavior of Mark Greene this season, following the brutal assault he suffered last year, is a clever way for Edwards to draw upon the goodwill his character has built up over the years. The scenes with his new, much younger girlfriend -- whom he clearly doesn't respect -- are enjoyably embarrassing. One of the best moments for the short-fused Greene came when he screamed "Your husband's going to die!" at a hard-of-hearing woman in the ER's crowded waiting room -- a good example of how the show's black humor doesn't come at the expense of character consistency.

But the romance between Clooney and Margulies has been awkward for all concerned, including the viewer -- who knows from years of TV experience that it will come to an unconvincing end. Indeed, last week the usually effective Margulies was handed the embarrassing task of suddenly acting like a 14-year-old.

Putting more emphasis on sexual liaisons among its expensive cast of regulars would not be a good direction for ER (it hasn't worked recently on NYPD Blue), and any long-running series must resist the temptation to make its characters too nice (remember M*A*S*H?). But so far ER has coped pretty well with its popularity, and NBC won't likely be foolish enough to second-guess its producers.

Still, I'd have to admit to a certain pleasure in seeing ER tumble from the number-one spot next year, especially as part of an overall decline for NBC's aging roster of shows. If the ER deal is seen as a Titanic-like success, we may face an unspeakable horror next year: a billion-dollar bidding war for Touched by an Angel.


Robert David Sullivan is a writer and editor living in New York City. He can be reached at Robt555@aol.com.


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