What ''ER'' needs to do to survive. Here's how the medical drama can lure viewers back from CBS

By Liane Bonin
Updated October 31, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

After years of glowing ratings health, ”ER”’s looking a little peaked this season. Though the nine-year-old NBC series is still the second-highest rated drama on the fall lineup, CBS’ new detective series ”Without a Trace” has decreased the 10 p.m. gap between the two networks by a whopping 134 percent. Could this mean the aging hospital drama will soon be wheezing its last breath?

EW.com talked to media analysts about what the show is doing to hold on to its audience and how well their efforts are working. The diagnosis? Don’t get out the defib paddles just yet.

APPLYING PRESSURE Aiming to reassure fans who are mourning last season’s departure of Eriq LaSalle, Michael Michele, and Anthony Edwards, NBC’s latest ad campaign crows that the show is better than ever. ”Say something often enough and people will believe it’s true,” says media analyst Stacey Lynn Koerner of Initiative Media. ”And putting a lot of marketing behind the show with an aggressive campaign is the right thing to do. You can’t take its status for granted.” But MediaWeek analyst Marc Berman wonders if fans will buy the hype. ”They can say whatever they want, but new characters just aren’t as readily accepted,” he says.
PROGNOSIS Good. Even if new kids like Sharif Atkins (Dr. Michael Gallant) don’t light your fire, those action-packed promos never lose their punch.

GETTING GORY When Dr. Romano (Paul McCrane) lost an arm during the season premiere, fans wondered if the show was trying to match ”CSI”’s high gore quotient to juice up ratings. ”I think that could drive people to see a specific episode, but I don’t think it compels repeated viewership week in week out,” says Koerner. Besides, imitating ”CSI”’s liquefied bodies and grody evidence exams could push ”ER”’s storylines over the top, a potentially deadly decision. ”The show’s sense of realism is what really engages people,” points out analyst Bill Carroll, of the Katz Television Group. On the other hand, if that reality stuff doesn’t grab viewers, the Halloween episode features a yucky flesh-eating virus!
PROGNOSIS Poor. If any more staffers get mangled, viewers may call it quits.