In Depth

Adalian Column: ‘ER’ Helped Remake the TV Landscape

“Smart, gritty, touching: All apply to the four-star movie premiere of Michael Crichton’s ‘ER,’ the better of this season’s two high-profile medical dramas. When this show and CBS’ ‘Chicago Hope’ move to Thursdays at 10, this is the one you’ll want to watch in real-time.”

I was a 23-year-old television critic for the Washington Times when I wrote those words. I’d love to say my rave review indicated an unusual level of small-screen sophistication and TV industry foresight, but around the same time I was gushing over “ER,” I also distinctly remember dismissing another 1994 fall premiere as pandering, conventional and unfunny.

Who knew “Friends” would be so big? (For what it’s worth, I could make a strong case that “How I Met Your Mother” is a far better written series, but a few billion dollars in syndication profits generated by “Friends” render that argument moot.)

I can’t recall if I predicted any sort of success for “ER,” but even if I had, I’m certain I had no clue it would explode in the way it did. Hard to believe now, when an audience of a million viewers is enough to declare “Mad Men” a phenom, but at its height, “ER” came close to attracting 50 million viewers some weeks.

That’s as big as “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” combined.

By the time “ER” was in its prime, I had moved on to the New York Post. On Friday mornings, I remember anxiously waiting for the ratings to arrive via the fax machine (which was right by the row of Underwood typewriters and the parking lot filled with Model Ts). I’d call NBC ratings publicist Ed Harrison, now ensconced at CBS, to see if the show had set another record.

These days, the only records I’m likely to read about in the morning are record lows, as even the biggest shows on TV struggle to hold on to their audiences.

“ER” long ago lost its cachet as water-cooler television. Some critics have complained that it devolved into a soapy mess years ago; I know more than a few real-life TV viewers who’ve never missed an episode, and have appreciated every hour they’ve spent with the ever-evolving staff of County General.

I can’t judge how well the series aged, as I tuned out somewhere around the turn of the century. I guess in a perfect world, “ER” would have lasted 10 years and “My So-Called Life”—which debuted the same season but died young and beautiful—would have had the chance at a full life.

“ER” finally checks out April 2, though I suspect it’s not the last we’ll see of those initials.

Given TV’s current love for remakes and spinoffs, it seems quite likely that “ER: The Next Generation” or “ER: Boston” will turn up sometime, somewhere within the next five years.

Until its possible return, some reflections on what “ER” taught us during its pretty amazing run:

—It telegraphed the beginning of the reality TV era. While everything on the show was scripted—well, maybe some of George Clooney’s eyebrow arches were spontaneous—the series’ pacing and urgency set the stage for “Survivor” and its ilk. “NYPD Blue” introduced us to the shaky-cam, but “ER” blew up the drama format by making viewers participants in the drama, rather than mere observers. Reality shows later would tap into the same visceral emotions.

—“ER” pretty much marked the end of the standard four-and-a-half-year TV license fee agreement. Studios once kept deals with networks as short as possible so that, in success, they could hold up networks for as much money as possible when it came time to renegotiate. And that’s exactly what Warner Bros. TV did in 1998, when it threatened to take “ER” to another network unless NBC ponied up a still jaw-dropping sum of more than $13 million per hour to keep the show.

NBC forked over the ransom, but networks responded by making contracts for most new shows run for at least six or seven years—by which time most series have started to decline in the ratings (not to mention quality).

—It signaled the rise of Leslie Moonves. From the casting of Mr. Clooney to the dogged advocacy of the show when NBC’s early pilot screening didn’t go well, the “ER” creation saga hinted at the uber-exec in the making with Mr. Moonves. No matter how far he climbs up the corporate ladder, Mr. Moonves will always be, first and foremost, a master showman.

Attention also must be paid to retired NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer and former NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield. When a show as grand as “ER” isn’t even the most important line on your resume, it says something about the quality of your tenure in charge of a network. And those two had quite a run.

—“ER” showed the power of marketing in building a hit. The hype for the show began hours after NBC picked it up, with the network declaring it the “next great drama” in ads that ran during “L.A. Law” in May 1994. John Miller and Vince Manze, NBC’s marketing team at the time, also wisely treated subsequent episodes of the show as events, turning every other episode of “ER” into the episode You. Must. Not. Miss.

—Finally, “ER” proved once and for all that network television is a medium of the gut, not the mind—of populist icons, not elites. David E. Kelley’s “Chicago Hope,” which premiered the same week as “ER,” was a fine series that had a respectable run on CBS. But while it boasted arguably better-written dialogue and explored Important Social Issues, “ER” grabbed your heartstrings every week with stories about ordinary young people transforming into heroes before our eyes.

It’s a formula that, in retrospect, probably couldn’t miss.