‘Er’ Remains Nbc Property

Still reeling from the imminent loss of “Seinfeld” and pro football, NBC prevented what has thus far been a bad year from getting worse by renewing television’s top-rated series, “ER,” via a staggering three-year rights deal estimated to be worth $850 million.

The record-setting agreement for a prime-time series - by far eclipsing what NBC pays for the previous high-water mark, “Seinfeld” - reflects television’s desperate hunger for hit programming, coming after ABC, CBS and Fox committed $17.6 billion over the next eight years to secure TV rights to NFL football.

The announcement Wednesday may help stem perceptions that the top-rated network is suffering a mass exodus of its most prized assets. Yet retaining “ER” won’t solve all of NBC’s problems, since the network remains unclear regarding the future of another popular prime-time series, “Mad About You,” and has yet to determine how best to replace “Seinfeld,” TV’s highest-rated comedy.

Sources said NBC will pay the “ER” production company, Warner Bros. Television, nearly $13 million per episode. The studio produces 22 episodes of the medical drama each year.

With “Seinfeld” to end its run in May, consensus had grown within the entertainment industry that “ER,” to paraphrase NBC’s promotional slogan, qualified as “Must-Buy TV.” NBC would have been hard-pressed to maintain its No. 1 status and enormous profits if suddenly lacking the medium’s two most-watched shows, each of which attracts more than 31 million viewers during an average telecast.

Despite interest from the other networks - which could have stolen the series if NBC balked at Warner Bros.’ price - few anticipated that NBC would let the series change hands.

Warner Bros. officials preferred keeping the series at its current network and time period - fearing that a move would risk shortening its life span - but said NBC’s risk of losing the program was real.

“We did all our homework in advance. We knew how much ‘ER’ was worth to NBC, right up to the last penny,” said Warner Bros. Chairman Robert Daly, adding that he “would have moved the show in a flash if they had not recognized its value.”

After absorbing the body blow that Jerry Seinfeld delivered in late December, when he informed the network that he would not return for another season next fall, NBC approached Warner Bros. about opening discussions before Feb. 1, which marked the beginning of an exclusive one-month negotiating period.

The parties reached an agreement early Tuesday, before the football deals closed; however, it was clear at that point that NBC was losing its existing football rights.

“ER” has proven particularly valuable to NBC.

The Emmy award-winning series provides a lift to adjacent prime-time programs, late newscasts on NBC stations, “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and even the “Today” show, since many people go to bed Thursdays with their sets tuned to NBC, then wake up to the network Friday mornings.

The program also garners more than $500,000 per 30-second commercial.

“ER” by far surpasses NBC’s licensing arrangement on “Seinfeld,” the previous record holder at about $5.5 million for each episode.

The “ER” cast will almost surely benefit from the precedent-setting agreement, though due to the program’s ensemble nature no single actor figures to cash in as handsomely as Seinfeld, who earns more than $1 million an episode for his show.

Most of the actors have been signed through two years beyond the current season. George Clooney has a contract that extends only through next year.

NBC’s fee includes two broadcasts of each “ER” episode, plus a third airing of eight episodes, covering 52 weeks each year.

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