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TV REVIEW

Now That the Hype-odermic Has Worn Off . . . So What?

September 27, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Thursday's talked-about, squealed-about, screamed-about live episode of "ER" (separate renderings for each coast) was another of television's phantom events, owing its life as a spectacle entirely to billowing hype generated by NBC.

And much of the news media cooperated by wrapping their lips around the same tuba and blowing their guts out. None more buffoonishly, naturally, than NBC-owned KNBC-TV Channel 4, which heavily promoted the episode during its newscasts Thursday and raved euphorically about it throughout its 11 p.m. news program. Speaking of medical attention, here is a station in dire need of an emergency ethics implant.

And what was this thing called . . . live, anyway?

Well, it was hardly the dramatic breakthrough and courageous theater that you would have thought from the gaseous hot air advertising it. Instead, it was nothing but a cynical gimmick to attract even more viewers to a series that had already ended last season top-ranked in the Nielsen ratings. This was like squandering artificial life support on a patient whose heart was already thumping like a jackhammer. Talk about getting greedy.

As noted in a recent radio interview by John Frankenheimer, whose directing career in television and movies spans nearly half a century, there was a reason why nearly all of prime time switched to tape from live telecasts many years ago. And that reason still exists: Live TV may carry the suspense of the unknown (Will someone's pants fall down? Will the camera catch someone picking his nose?), but the quality of the work is almost always inferior. No safety net, you see. No way to go back and fix things that did not come off quite as planned.

And that was the case with Thursday's season-opening "ER," which was tense and compelling, as always, but could have been more so had it been produced the usual way, extending a brand of TV that has served it well in the past.

Judging by the exuberance it displayed in media coverage after the event, the "ER" cast was jubilant, the way anyone would be after running a red light without getting broadsided. Better to have avoided the risk.

Pretending that backward is forward is an old trick. It's also dishonest and unbefitting a series of the quality of "ER."

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