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'ER': An oral history

The NBC show beat a bad early prognosis to become one of TV’s biggest hits

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Love affairs, bloody operations, death by helicopter: A lot of great drama has unfolded on ER over the past 15 years, but its most sensational story may have been one we didn’t see. Here, in the words of the execs who made it happen, is the inside tale of the hit show’s 1994 birth, and how it nearly flatlined before getting on the air.

Preston Beckman, NBC head of scheduling, 1991-2000: NBC wasn’t all that strong at 10 p.m. L.A. Law was starting to fade out. We actually considered doing what NBC did this season — offer Jay Leno a 10 p.m. show five nights a week, because we just didn’t feel like we had the goods.

Warren Littlefield, NBC Entertainment president, 1991-99: [Creator] Michael Crichton’s pilot script for ER was 20 years old and approximately 150 pages. It came out of his experience as a med student in Boston. It was all over the place, more chaos than order.

Leslie Moonves, President of Warner Bros. TV, ER‘s studio, 1993-95: Initially NBC gave us an episodic commitment, but then that changed to a pilot commitment. So I tried selling ER to other networks.

Littlefield: That could not be further from the truth. I told him, ”Where are you gonna get a six-episode commitment?” I told [Moonves] to go make the film you believe in, but as a two-hour pilot. And there were people at NBC who didn’t want me to even put that offer on the table.

Don Ohlmeyer, NBC West Coast president, 1993-99: I had some reservations about whether the audience was ready for something that powerful. Sometimes you can have a show that is past your audience.

Lori Openden, NBC head of casting, 1985-99: Everybody was apprehensive about it. There were multiple stories. It involved a handheld camera and a big ensemble cast.

Beckman: [When we screened the pilot in spring 1994], I thought it had the most unbelievable opening to a pilot I’d ever seen — pitch darkness and you hear Dr. Greene (Anthony Edwards) and something about an emergency. He gets up and walks into the ER and all hell breaks loose. And Carol Hathaway [Julianna Margulies] kills herself in the pilot.

Littlefield: It was gory. There was too much blood. And there was so much medical terminology flying around.

Kevin Reilly, NBC VP of drama development, 1992-94: When the lights came up [in the screening room], it was not a very positive reaction. I remember Don saying, ”Let’s be in business with people who want to make television!” And he stormed out of the room. Once Don had declared that he was less than happy with it, that kind of set the tone.

John Wells, Exec producer, 1994-2009: We waited about an hour after the screening for them to come and give us notes. Finally, Warren came into the room and said, ”There is really no point in giving the notes because Don is never going to put it on the air.” Don was very unhappy that we didn’t address his notes — about the language, things moving too quickly, how there were too many characters — all the things that ended up becoming the hallmarks of the series.

Ohlmeyer: People like to rewrite history. I loved the pilot. I cried three times. There was just an awful lot of medical mumbo jumbo.

Moonves: On the day of the pilot screening I [ran into Openden], and I expected her to fall in my arms saying it was the greatest pilot they ever screened. But she said it really didn’t go that well. We started working the phones. The idea was to say, ”Guys, this was our highest-testing pilot we’ve ever seen.” So we did a third test together.

Beckman: We put the pilot on cable systems and recruited people to view it. If you weren’t recruited and you happened to be flipping around, you could see it that way, too. We started getting calls from ravenous people, asking, ”What was that?”

Reilly: One thing that came out of the research was how sorry everybody was to see Julianna go. So we just looped a line in saying, ”It looks like she’s going to make it out of the coma!”

Littlefield: There was lots of doubting, but we had a feeling there was something here. How does a network say ”I love you”? You say yes and pick up the show!

Wells: To Don’s credit, as soon as the testing showed something else, he gave us the best time slot in television. He literally said to me at one point, ”What the hell do I know?”

Beckman: CBS announced Chicago Hope as their Thursday-at-10 o’clock show before we announced ER.

Reilly: The conventional wisdom was that ER was interesting, but Chicago Hope was the more commercial show.

Moonves: CBS played dirty with the advertising campaign over the summer. They said, ”We’ve got David Kelley and NBC has a bunch of people who haven’t done that much television.”

Jeff Sagansky, CBS Entertainment president, 1990-94: We had another David Kelley show called Picket Fences, which had won the Emmy for best drama two years in a row. Plus, we had an incredible cast. ER had an incredible cast too, but nobody knew it then.

Beckman: We premiered ER on a Monday night [Sept. 19, 1994, and got 23.8 million viewers]. Then we ran the next episode that Thursday, and it exploded. We beat Chicago Hope [and the 18-49 numbers shot up by 2 million].

Littlefield: It didn’t take that long for CBS to move Hope.

Sagansky: Chicago Hope was a successful show, but it was in the shadow of a super show. So it never got its due.

Beckman: I had a feeling CBS would move Hope to Monday night at 10 the day after New Year’s. So we announced we’d repeat the ER pilot on that day. In early December, Don got a call from Hope star Mandy Patinkin, who wanted to know what NBC had against his show.

Ohlmeyer: I always had a great deal of respect for Mandy for doing that. But my job was to kick the s— out of CBS.