"ER" proclaimed its latest operation a success, as Thursday's live episode charted the NBC drama's highest rating ever, capping a stellar night that included big premieres for "Seinfeld" and the new Kirstie Alley comedy "Veronica's Closet."
The season-opening "ER" drew 42.7 million viewers, a 22% increase over last year's first episode. The program essentially doubled the combined audience for the two network programs competing with it, ABC's "20/20" and CBS' "48 Hours."
In the Los Angeles market, the NBC show was seen in almost half the households watching television at 10 p.m., as Channel 4 attracted nearly 1.5 million homes--exceeding the aggregate audience share for the market's six other VHF stations (Channels 2, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13).
Anticipation for the episode appeared to lift NBC's ratings throughout the night, as "Seinfeld" drew its largest audience ever--nearly 38 million people--while more than 35 million saw the premiere of "Veronica's Closet."
"Friends" improved compared to last year as well, with more than 29 million people watching its season premiere. About 13% of those viewers bailed on "Union Square"--a new sitcom sandwiched between "Friends" and "Seinfeld."
The vast "ER" crowd also spilled over into late news and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," which scored its highest rating since actor Hugh Grant's appearance in July 1995, following his arrest with a prostitute.
The "ER" cast and crew performed Thursday's episode twice, at 7 and 10 p.m., so West Coast viewers would get to experience the program live as well.
The most notable glitch occurred during the West Coast version, when an actor playing an HIV-infected patient inadvertently dropped a syringe he was to have brandished at hospital staff. A few other differences could be seen from the earlier performance, such as a baby sitting silently through her scene with George Clooney, while a different child cried all the way through the East Coast feed.
"ER" executive producer John Wells said the live episode--initially suggested by Clooney--was not a premiere-week ratings stunt but rather an attempt "to try and do something for ourselves creatively," seeking to keep the performers from becoming complacent as the show embarks on its fourth season.
Wells cited as inspiration the recent best-drama Emmy won by NBC's "Law & Order," which is beginning its eighth year. The hardest thing in television is not to create a show, he said, but rather "to have a show that's still good in that sixth, seventh and eighth season."
Beyond the huge ratings garnered, "ER" production company Warner Bros. Television is marketing a video of the live episode that was advertised at the end of Thursday's telecast. A studio spokesman said the video will be priced at $19.95 and will feature one of the versions shot.
The network plans to flop the East and West Coast performances when the episode is repeated, providing each region a chance to see the hour it missed.
The "ER" cast and crew didn't get much of a break following the live effort; production began Friday on a new episode.
Still, between the two shows Thursday night, co-star Eriq La Salle told reporters the live performance was "a great challenge" and "a big rush. Everybody is very high right now." Both Wells and La Salle added that they would consider another live episode at some point.
Not surprisingly, NBC crunched the competition Thursday, with ratings plummeting for the new ABC dramas "Nothing Sacred" and "Cracker" compared to their first episodes last week.