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'ER's' Main Challenge Is Maintaining Its Health

Television: As the top-rated show returns, the demands include keeping scripts fresh and accommodating cast members' side projects.


Television series live and die based on numbers. Looking at its chart, then, it's easy to diagnose "ER" as the most robust prime-time drama in more than a decade.

The NBC medical series begins its third season tonight with an entire ward of staggering figures at its disposal--the sort that haven't been seen since some TV executives were in high school. Among them:

* Prime time's No. 1 ranking, the first drama series to reach that peak since "Dynasty" in 1985.

* NBC's highest ratings in its time period since "The Dean Martin Show" in 1970.

* A 40% share of audience for original telecasts last year, reaching nearly a quarter of U.S. households each week.

* Drawing 50% or more of all female viewers, meaning as many women watched "ER" as every alternative combined.

* Contributing to "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno's" first-place status, as the late-night show translates "ER's" ratings into big numbers of its own every Thursday.

* Eight Emmy Awards its first year, equaling a single-season series award record held since the early 1980s by "Hill Street Blues." A total of 40 Emmy nominations its first two seasons.

* A sale to Turner Entertainment Group for a reported $1.2 million per episode, a record sum for rerun rights to a TV drama.

Faced with such statistics, CBS and ABC essentially threw in the towel when setting their prime-time schedules last May. After futilely tackling the show with "Chicago Hope" and "Murder One," respectively, its first and second seasons, both offered news programs as competition this season, content to battle it out for "ER's" leftovers.

Yet "ER" didn't completely arrive in terms of industry recognition until Sept. 8, when it took home the Emmy for best drama--an honor denied the program its first season by "NYPD Blue."

After an extraordinary two-year run, "ER" executive producer John Wells rejects the notion that the show has no mountains to climb, even if there are virtually no magazine covers left to grace.

"The reality is we didn't really set out to make a No. 1 show," said Wells, sitting in the Warner Bros. office he decorates with kitschy posters from old women-in-prison movies. "We still look at the success of the show as sort of a great surprise. When we came on we were hoping to last until Christmas. . . . There was never a moment when we set out to do a show that would have this kind of broad appeal."

Though "ER" was created by novelist-screenwriter Michael Crichton--drawing on his experiences as a medical student--and its producers include Steven Spielberg, Wells has been the man on the front lines. "He's the heart and soul of the show," series star George Clooney said.


At 40, the former "China Beach" producer refers to himself as "the guy who was standing next to the tree that was struck by lightning" while suggesting that even "ER's" Emmy came at a fortuitous time. "In some ways, I think not winning it the first year was a bit of a blessing, because we have a lot more creatively to do," Wells said.

"In series television, the thing that's hardest to do is keep a show going and keep it good. So there is a reticence to award a first-year series because they haven't done the hardest work. I understand the inclination on the academy's part to say, 'Let's wait and see what they're really made of.' "

Awards notwithstanding, Wells conceded that the show's commercial success has complicated matters. The crush of media attention was such during the first season that the crew joked they couldn't discern their own cameras from those of TV magazine shows visiting the set.

"There's a point at which the public embrace can overwhelm the work," Wells said. "I kind of refer to it as the background noise, not unlike living next to the airport."

"The six of us surviving that first season was pretty amazing," added Clooney, referring to the sudden notoriety showered on cast members Anthony Edwards, Eriq La Salle, Julianna Margulies, Sherry Stringfield, Noah Wyle and himself. Under those conditions, he said, "You either bust apart or band together and make it work."

"ER" has seemingly managed to weather such distractions. While contract negotiations involving "Friends" received considerable attention this summer, Warner Bros. Television (which produces both shows) quietly came to terms on sweetened deals with most of "ER's" stars.

Outside demands associated with that newfound stardom have also resulted in logistic challenges--especially in regard to Clooney, currently working seven-day weeks as he switches back and forth between surgical scrubs and a cape playing the lead in "Batman and Robin." That follows starring roles in the upcoming movies "Peacemaker" and "One Fine Day," the latter opposite Michelle Pfeiffer.

"ER" keeps a calendar to monitor such commitments, telling writers to make characters "a little light" during a certain week. "We've gone out of our way to allow the cast to do other things," Wells said.

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