The Emmy-Award-winning television drama ER premiered in the fall of 1994. It became the most richly compensated show in television history in 1998 when NBC agreed to pay the show's production company, Warner Brothers, 13 million dollars per episode for three seasons. Best-selling author and film producer Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Disclosure) created the hour-long drama, which centers on a staff of young medical professionals who work in the emergency room of an inner city hospital in Chicago. The show's collection of talented actors, writers, and producers garnered ER an average of 30 million viewers per episode. The show's blockbuster ratings and critical acclaim accelerated the 1990s trend toward cross-pollination between the television and film industries. Many members of the cast branched into film work while honoring contracts with the show. Crichton shared duties as executive producer with famous Hollywood producer and director Steven Spielberg and veteran television producers John Wells, Lydia Woodward, and Carol Flint.
The NBC-Warner Brothers financial agreement concerning ER signaled a shift in television economics. In the decade leading up to the deal, increased competition brought about by cable and satellite technology found traditional networks straining to maintain their dwindling audiences. Suddenly, exceptionally popular programs like ER enjoyed increased bargaining power. As a result, a two-tiered system took shape in which one or a handful of shows would carry a network—not necessarily by generating direct profits (although advertisers did pay $500,000 per 30 second spot during ER broadcasts), but by luring viewers to the network, thus generating interest on the part of advertisers to invest in less-popular shows.
Frenzied pacing and frankness in depicting emergency medical procedures characterized the show. Its immediate popularity also afforded ER directors considerable room for artistic experimentation. In attempting to reproduce an edgy documentary style, for instance, "Ambush," the opening episode of the fourth season, was broadcast live and shot on video rather than on traditional film stock. The daring episode (which some called a publicity stunt) received mixed reviews. Ultimately, producers shifted the focus of the drama away from its hyperactive emergency scenes, toward the soap-opera-like personal lives of the characters.
Web sites centered on the show's doctors and nurses proliferated on the Internet. Viewers enjoyed the medical heroics performed by the characters, but also sympathized with the tragic humanity of their flaws and their weekly attempts to hold together their neglected personal lives. Series favorites include Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), a senior attending physician whose career cost him his marriage; Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney, whose 1999 departure from the show was one of the most-watched episodes), a handsome, philandering pediatrician; Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle), an intense and egotistical surgeon; Dr. John Carter (Noah Wyle), a well-intentioned but naive son of one of Chicago's wealthiest families; Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies), a compassionate, earthy nurse who struggles to determine her own self-worth; Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben), an HIV-positive physician's assistant; Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes), an abrasive attending physician and administrator; and Dr. Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston), a winsome and intelligent visiting surgeon from England perplexed by the seriousness of her American colleagues. In addition to these favorites, series regulars have included various characters who lasted a season or two.
One of the most popular and critically acclaimed television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) dramas of the 1990s was ER. The show depicted the medical traumas faced by the doctors and nurses of an inner-city Chicago, Illinois, hospital emergency room. The series, created by author Michael Crichton (1942–), debuted in 1994 and was more quickly paced and realistic than previous medical programs. Author Steven Stark, in Glued to the Set, discusses ER's mass appeal: "It brilliantly took a number of trends in programming—the push to realism, the focus on dysfunction, and the emphasis on shorter segments—and combined them to create a synthesis of an early-evening 'reality' show, a daytime talk fest, and Hill Street Blues." The program dominated the ratings. In 1998, it became the most highly compensated show in TV history when NBC agreed to pay $13 million per episode.
Before he was the acclaimed author of best-sellers (see entry under 1940s—Commerce in volume 3) like Jurassic Park (see entry under 1990s—Print Culture in volume 5), Crichton was a physician. He based ER on his own emergency-room experiences. He believed previous medical dramas like Marcus Welby (1969–76), Medical Center (1969–76), and The Bold Ones (1969–72) did not realistically portray the tension and hectic activity of a true hospital environment. Episodes of ER were filled with dozens of characters, technical medical jargon, and graphic operating scenes. The ER staff seemed to face an unceasing array of gunshot wounds, domestic violence, drug overdoses, and other emergencies that tested both their professional skills and personal emotions. It was not uncommon for episodes to have unhappy endings.
The series frequently examined the personal trials and tribulations of the hospital staff. Among the most prominent characters were: Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards, 1962–), whose career disrupted his marriage; Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle, 1962–), an intense surgeon; Nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies, 1966–), a compassionate caregiver; and Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben, 1964–), who discovered that she had acquired AIDS from her husband. Actor George Clooney (1961–) became a TV superstar as Dr. Doug Ross, a womanizing pediatrician. His 1999 departure from the series for a film career marked one of the show's most watched episodes.
Crichton, along with fellow executive producer Steven Spielberg (1946–) and of many of television's top writers and producers, crafted an intensely satisfying drama that depicted the hardships faced by medical professionals in the 1990s while continuing to reinforce TV's traditionally positive image of heroic doctors and nurses. The show remained on the air into the twenty-first century.
For More Information
"ER." Warner Bros.http://www2.warnerbros.com/web/ertv/index.jsp (accessed April 2, 2002).
Pourroy, Janine. Behind the Scenes at ER. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.
Spignesi, Stephen. The ER Companion: An Unauthorized Guide. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1996.
Stark, Steven. Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events that Made Us Who We Are Today. New York: Free Press, 1997.
ER (Heb. עַר; "watcher, watchful"), the name of two biblical figures. (1) The eldest son of Judah and the daughter of Shua, a Canaanite (Gen. 38:2–3). He married *Tamar but died childless because of his wickedness (Gen. 38:6–7; 46:12; Num. 26:19; i Chron. 2:3). The nature of his offense is not specified. (2) The son of Shelah, the grandson of Judah, and the father of Lecah (i Chron. 4:21).
W.F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (1968), 69–70, 233p.