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'ER' time of death: 10 p.m. Thursday

March 28, 2009|Scott Collins

With its technical innovations and reliance on realism, "ER" changed dramatic television. And when NBC pulls the plug on the show Thursday after 15 seasons, "ER" will leave behind a splintered prime-time landscape as the networks struggle to compete in a digital world.

Set in a frenzied Chicago emergency room where the staff had personal lives often even more hectic than their medical cases, "ER" on its 1994 premiere was a dramatic innovation, a hyper-realistic "General Hospital" complete with gallons of blood, relentless Steadicam shots and shouted healthcare jargon. The audience loved it. "ER" was TV's No. 1 drama in the ad-friendly category of adults ages 18 to 49 for an astonishing 10 seasons and has long served as the 10 p.m. anchor of NBC's once-invincible Thursday lineup. Despite its age, the show has still sometimes beaten competing dramas in its time slot this season.

"I can't say never, but I doubt we will ever see the likes of a show like 'ER' again that rounds up such a huge amount of viewers who watch something at the same time," said Neal Baer, a Harvard-trained physician who was one of the show's early writers and eventually served as an executive producer. "It's truly the end of an era of television."

"ER" was more than just a hit, though. Expanding on the realism of such groundbreaking 1980s dramas as "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere," "ER" in turn started a creative movement toward lifelike authenticity in specialized settings that has deeply influenced later hits such as the forensics-themed whodunit "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and the White House drama "The West Wing." In real life, "ER" even inspired more students to study emergency medicine, and at least one study found it helped educate consumers about healthcare.

"ER" fans are thus bidding farewell to a lot more than just Dr. Tony Gates (John Stamos) and his colleagues at the fictional County General Hospital.

Indeed, "ER's" life span has coincided with a deep commercial and cultural decline for the broadcast networks. Cable outlets stole market share and media attention with gritty dramas such as "The Sopranos" and "The Shield." Increasing numbers of viewers are watching programming on the Internet or on a time-delayed basis using digital video recorders. Pressured by low ratings and rising production costs, broadcasters are turning to relatively inexpensive reality series and talk shows.

Next season, in a dramatic symbol of the networks' ebbing fortunes, "ER's" slot -- where it had the longest reign in the same one-hour time period of any scripted drama in network history -- will be occupied by Jay Leno's Monday-to-Friday talk show. Leno's program is reportedly expected to cost less than $2 million for a week's worth of shows; for this season, NBC has paid Warner Bros. Television, the studio that produces "ER," an estimated license fee that is nearly twice that figure for each episode of the hospital drama.

"That was certainly part of the DNA of NBC, award-winning, audience-grabbing quality drama," said Warren Littlefield, who was NBC's entertainment president when "ER" went on the air. The drama's finale "ends that 10 o'clock era."

It may end it for NBC at least, but not necessarily for the other broadcasters. ABC and CBS remain committed to the notion of 10 p.m. dramas and have publicly challenged the wisdom of NBC's move. (Fox's prime-time schedule ends at 10 p.m.)

"I will bet anybody who would like to bet that 'CSI: Miami' on Monday will beat Jay by a lot," CBS chief Leslie Moonves said at a news conference in December, referring to one of his network's popular procedural dramas. "We view it as a plus for us. It's taking the third competitor out of the marketplace, and that will make us stronger."

Yet even the most optimistic network insiders admit that the 10 p.m. landscape is a much more punishing environment for broadcasters than it was when "ER" premiered.

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Low expectations

In retrospect, "ER's" success may seem preordained, but at the time it made for an unlikely TV hit. Bestselling novelist Michael Crichton, who died last year at age 66, had written the original script as a movie screenplay based on his experiences as a Harvard medical student. But the script had languished unproduced for years before it was pitched to NBC as a series. Steven Spielberg, whose teaming with Crichton had met with great success on "Jurassic Park," was initially onboard as a producer (his company Amblin Television is a partial owner of the show).

"It was a huge screenplay," Littlefield recalled. "Characters all over the place, really dense. Unlike anything I'd ever read before."

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