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'ER' Bright as Nova but Is Burnout Near? : Commentary: Intense action brings whopping audiences, but the NBC series might need to step away from the emergency room for a long life.

March 16, 1995|RICK DU BROW | TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

It's not supposed to happen anymore.

But in two of the last three weeks, NBC's blazing-hot new medical series "ER" has achieved a 40% audience share--a stupendous showing at a time when network tune-in is shrinking and a 20% share makes program executives happy.

For "ER," 37 and 38 shares have popped up with regularity in the last few months.

The Thursday series, set in an emergency room, scored its latest 40 last week with a gut-wrenching story of a pregnant young woman, in seemingly good spirits, who suddenly, shockingly dies amid havoc as she goes through a difficult birth.

Riveting, gripping--all those critical adjectives.

But . . .

How long can the frenzied speed, action and rip-roaring pace keep up before viewers finally weary of the program's breathless style?

It's a question that goes way beyond "ER" to the very nature of network TV, where intense, high-concept and often brilliant shows like this medical series burn brightly for a short time and then fade quickly.

Other series, such as "Moonlighting," "Miami Vice" and "Twin Peaks," started smashingly but could not sustain their initial impact, and their original magic disappeared rather fast.

David Letterman's new CBS series--TV's best show--has started explosively in the ratings, and he's shown staying power in his former, long-running NBC program. But can the furious energy of the first two CBS seasons sustain itself for several decades, as Johnny Carson did, or will a subtle lowering of the program's seismic level be part of the program's future?

In TV, as elsewhere, brief, passionate encounters are often the spice of life, the shows that bring you back to the tube and make you a fan again. But sustaining passion is no small task, and the flame often flickers when a high point is reached.

With "ER," the question is how long it will take before viewers tire of the speeding gurneys, frantic, mile-a-minute action and overwhelming intensity.

Certainly not for a good, long while, it seems. But will the jaded prime-time television audience still be as hooked, say, two years from now? Or will the action on "ER" seem repetitious, overly familiar, easier to tune out more frequently?

At the moment, "ER" doesn't have a care on Earth in terms of ratings. Rarely has a show flown so high so quickly--and just when network television needed a big lift.

And it's quite possible the show's producers are keenly aware of the dangerous short attention span of modern audiences, who discard stars and programs as quickly as they enshrine them.

So--while the iron is hot--why not think about the future and prepare?

What's happening with "ER" now is that viewers just can't get enough of the virtual nonstop, rapid-fire, fragmented storytelling format.

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But, whether the production team knows it or not, last week's episode, which starred Anthony Edwards as the doctor on the spot in the tragic birth, may have been a turning point for "ER," a show to look at for the future.

Not that the action slowed down. And there have been other sequences in the past that have lingered a bit longer on a central character of the cast. But after "ER" has finished roaring through its first season or two and acquainting us more and more with its cast, it might well think about focusing on more aspects of their characters and more stories that are not tied so tightly to the actual emergency room setting.

Would this be a cop-out? Would it be a compromise just to try to lengthen the run of the series and its attractive performers?

Maybe. And maybe that would kill the passion we now have for the show, just in exchange for more episodes.

That seems to be the difficult choice, however, with these high-concept things. Is it better to have that brief, passionate, no-holds-barred encounter--or move in together for a milder, long-lasting relationship?

"Moonlighting," TV's best romantic comedy in years--perhaps ever--was like nothing else until it started messing around with its premise. When Maddie Hayes got pregnant, the show was dead on the spot.

"Miami Vice" turned detective shows upside down and mixed color schemes and pop music with storytelling to create a New Age TV form. But, although it continued to run for a while, it never recaptured its original magic.

"Twin Peaks" was a one-show TV revolution, a water-cooler conversation piece every week--at first. It fell apart when viewers felt it avoided coming to the point, but it has looked wonderful in reruns on the Bravo cable network, where the audience is smaller, less demanding of roller-coaster action, and more tolerant of the repetition of tone, if done exquisitely, as it is.

So now it's "ER's" turn to avoid burnout.

Intense, demanding shows and personalities are flat-out gambles on the networks, where easygoing programs and performers have always ruled the airwaves, with the exception of Roseanne and a few others.

Judy Garland was only one of a number of intense, big-name entertainers whose series failed to fly, except creatively. Dean Martin was a bigger TV star than Jerry Lewis, his former partner who was considered a better bet going into the medium.

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And "Laugh-In" was a shoo-in with audiences with its breezy irreverence and social commentary, while the Smothers Brothers, handling much of the same material in a more demanding and intense fashion, wound up struggling.

Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, "Gunsmoke" and "Cheers" all were long-term, classic television fixtures--and all were dead-center mainstream. "Moonlighting," "Miami Vice" and "Twin Peaks" were anything but mainstream--and not so long-term.

"ER" is so hot now that it can probably call its own shots for the future--by planning ahead, for the inevitable day when the audience is exhausted by seemingly nonstop crisis.

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