For tonight, 'ER' won't look like itself TV: In a rare move -- being shown live -- the popular NBC drama will seem like a documentary.

September 25, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Viewer, be warned: "ER" is not going to look like "ER" tonight, and it's not just because it's going to be broadcast live.

That's the message from executive producer Carol Flint and director Thomas Schlamme on the eve of the highly publicized live broadcasts of "ER" at 10 tonight on NBC (one show for each coast).

They've made a number of radical choices in connection with going live, and some fans of the most popular show on TV are likely to be jarred by what they see when they first tune in.

"Viewers should understand this is a documentary that we're making. We're not trying to say this is an episode of 'ER' that's live," Schlamme said in a conference telephone call this week.

"This is a documentary of one night in the hospital, so it's going to have a very different look and feel, and I'm not sure many people understand that," he added.

Schlamme is right: Most of the advance stories have not explained the premise of tonight's show very well, mainly because of inaccurate allusions to 1950s live television done during the so-called Golden Age of Drama.

If the producers and actors were simply doing a regular episode of "ER," but broadcasting it live, the viewer would see the world of "ER" in essentially the same omniscient way -- just not on film.

"ER" is shot on film, while live television is done with video cameras. The video image looks flatter and watery compared to film. To compare, local news is video, "60 Minutes" is shot on film.

Flint says cast and crew members often discussed doing a live broadcast, because many of the operating-table scenes are filmed in relatively long, non-stop stretches of four to five minutes.

"We thought: 'If we can keep the ball up in the air for five minutes, what's to say we can't do it for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, the full hour? And wouldn't that be re-energizing, exciting, cool?' " said Flint, who wrote tonight's script.

But, since the viewers were accustomed to seeing "ER" on film, the producers needed a way to justify going to the video look. Which is where the premise of doing the entire episode as a documentary came in.

"I was doing an episode with George [Clooney] and Anthony [Edwards] and we were just chatting away about the idea of doing it live, when we realized it would be cool if it wasn't just a stunt. If there was a justified reason for it to be live, if we had a script that actually dictated live, then, yes, let's do it. Which is when the concept of its being a documentary came in," Schlamme said.

The documentary concept changes everything, not just in terms of technology, but also performance, script and point of view for the audience. Viewers now have another camera between them and the world of "ER" -- the jerky, hand-held video cameras of the documentary-makers.

"In terms of the technical, beyond video vs. film, you now have sound that's immediate instead of being processed through two or three weeks of careful post-production," Schlamme said.

"And the acting thing is on a totally different level. These actors are now people who are somewhat intimidated by the documentary cameras as opposed to a regular episode, where you're never aware of cameras.

"These are now doctors in an environment being aware of the camera crew shooting them, which creates a reality that the audience has never seen before with these performers," he added.

That is the big concern with Flint and Schlamme: How viewers will react to this new reality of "ER" -- besides the usual live worries about forgotten lines, power outtages, a prankster on the set, scenes running long or short.

But there are contingencies for all that, Flint and Schlamme say: "accordion" scenes written so they can be stretched or shortened, backup power lines, generators and satellite links of every kind. There's even a version of the show -- a dress rehearsal taped last night -- NBC can use if disaster strikes.

Broadcasting live is not that scary or unprecedented. "Roc" did it for a full season of 22 episodes, and there have been a number of one-shot, live dramas, such as NBC's "A Member of the Wedding," with Henry Fonda, in 1982.

To their credit, Flint and Schlamme cooled the hype in their interviews this week.

For example, when asked why they decided to do a second live broadcast tonight for viewers on the West Coast, Schlamme said it was mainly because that's where they live, and they wanted their friends and family to be able to see their work.

"Our overall approach to tonight is that we are doing a play. So, in terms of the two broadcasts, we're just thinking of it as a matinee and evening performance," he said.

"Yes, we've been thinking of it as theater all along, so it wasn't that big a deal to do another show," Flint added.

Only this theater will probably seat about 45 million theatergoers tonight when the curtain goes up.

"I just hope they accept the new reality of 'ER' tonight," Flint said. "But we did it this way so that we didn't have to alter the regular world of 'ER' for one night of being live.

"Next week, the documentary cameras are gone, and we can go back to our regular, wonderful world."

'ER'

What: Live broadcast

Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)

When: 10 p.m.-11 p.m.

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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