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PROGNOSIS EXCELLENT FOR NBC'S MEGAHIT `ER'

NBC's megahit "ER" has done something no drama series in the history of television has ever done.

It finished its freshman season as the No. 2 show on television.For the 30-week regular season (September-April), "ER's" average 20.0 rating was only half a point behind top-ranked "Sein-feld." (Each rating point represents 954,000 homes.)

And since 1995 began, "ER" has actually averaged a bigger audience than "Seinfeld.

The show is so popular that its pilot episode will be released to home video in June - an unprecedented move for a television show that debuted only last September.

Before "ER's" rise to the Nielsen stratosphere, the best any hourlong drama had done before was a fifth-place finish by ABC's "Charlie's Angels" in 1976-77. The highest any freshman drama had ever finished was No. 4, achieved by the half-hour "Have Gun, Will Travel" during the 1957-58 season.

As a matter of fact, only one show of any kind has ever finished its first season ranked higher in the ratings than "ER." "The Beverly Hillbillies" was No. 1 in 1962-63.

And in an era when only a handful of shows manage to attract a 30 share of the audience (30 percent of those watching television at the time), "ER" has been attracting 40 shares with surprising frequency in recent weeks. And the last time a drama garnered a 40 share was the season premiere of "Moonlighting" in 1987.

What's even more astounding about this achievement is that, prior to this season, conventional television wisdom was that the hourlong drama was dead. (Of course, this is the same industry that declared the sitcom dead before "The Cosby Show" and was declaring resurgent NBC dead a couple of seasons ago.)

Worse yet, TV dramas set in hospitals had been poison on the market for years. "There's been a lot of research in the past that it's someplace (viewers) don't want to be," said "ER" executive producer John Wells. "So they will avoid the hospital, and they will avoid the show."

So the odds against an hourlong drama set in a big-city hospital emergency room, complete with a large cast, becoming a break-out hit were long.

Still, the folks at NBC were confident, although no one expected "ER" to become a huge success. Last summer, NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield would say only, "I think we'll have great quality with that show."

Wells said he was convinced the show would be of high quality but admitted he was "absolutely shocked" at its overwhelming success.

George Clooney, who stars as Dr. Doug Ross, concurred.

"I've been on a lot of shows that didn't work when I thought they would," said Clooney, who is starring in his eighth TV series. "I was in no way prepared for this to take off like it did. I'm thrilled but surprised."

"It's kind of like you send out invitations to a party and you don't know whether four people are going to come or 100," Wells said. "And you really hope it's the 100. But you don't know if everybody likes you or not. But it took off immediately.

"And I think we were all very surprised. I mean, my expectation was that `PrimeTime Live' was going to be winning the hour because there were going to be two medical shows that basically would be competing for the same audience."

But, since the beginning of the season, both ABC's "PrimeTime" and that other medical drama, CBS' "Chicago Hope," have been moved to other nights, where both are prospering. "ER," meanwhile, has turned into a ratings juggernaut, mowing down everything ABC and CBS have thrown against it.

Theories as to why "ER" has become such a huge hit abound. Deseret News readers responding to a TV survey used words like "thrilling," "exciting," "enthralling," "touching" and "involving" to describe the show.

"It's exciting. It's real. And I think it's probably one of the most compelling hours each and every week that you can find anywhere on your dial," said NBC's Littlefield. "The (testing) audiences told us that they feel like it's an action show. It's an absolute thrill adventure ride when they sit down to watch this thing. And it also has incredible intimacy."

"It's fast-paced, the characters are likeable and even the character who isn't likeable still has a soft side, and you can see why he's driven," said KSL's vice president of programming, David Manookin, who's looking forward to carrying "ER" when his station becomes an NBC affiliate this summer. "There's a lot of depth there, and it gets you involved in learning what medicine is about and what the emergency room is about. And you like all these people as they come through the door."

And an awful lot of people come through those emergency room doors every week. Wells estimated the average episode has between 10 and 13 major medical stories, along with seven or eight smaller bits.

"Our average cast size for the guest cast is just under 25," he said. "So when you include our recurring characters . . . normally we'll have 50 speaking parts in an episode. Lots of bodies."

All of which makes "ER" the fastest-paced show on television and seems to add to its appeal. But at the same time, the lives of the main characters - mostly doctors - have been developed with continuing storylines that have made them seem real.

"This is a place where you'd want to come," said Dr. Lance Gentile, the show's technical adviser and a staff writer. "These are doctors you'd want to have. These are doctors who care. And I think that's probably gone a long way to explain the audience indentifying with our show."

"We don't show the doctors being infallible," Wells said. "At the same time we show them as compassionate and caring and having real lives. I think that removes the idea of doctors as god, which is something we have all come to distrust over the last 25, 30 years. And that makes everyone much more comfortable with it."

Much of its early success - particularly in the battle with "Chicago Hope" - was attributed to NBC's overall success on that night. "ER" is preceded by hits like "Mad About You," "Friends" and "Seinfeld."

"We have just a juggernaut of product leading up to the show," Littlefield said. "But let's give `ER' its due. It's outstanding television."

And the fact is that in recent months "ER" has been attracting more viewers than any of the shows that precede it.

Despite all the theories about why "ER" works as well as it does, there's no way to quantify it. Asked why some shows work and other don't, Littlefield - NBC's chief programmer - said, "It's not a science. Who knows?"

For Wells, it's a particular mystery. He was a writer and producer of "China Beach," another critically acclaimed medically oriented network drama that never achieved hit status.

"We were very lucky when we broke (into) sort of the 40s (in the weekly rankings)," Wells said. "We'd kind of get together and have a little party. And we look at each other every day and say, `I don't really know what the difference is.'

"We have a wonderful cast, terrific writers. But if you knew what it was you'd bottle it, and we'd have lots of very successful television shows. The alchemy is much more difficult that that. And I don't think anybody knows how to really put it together again."