LOS ANGELES -- A week of wild network spending continued yesterday with NBC agreeing to pay Warner Bros. Television a record $13 million an episode for the rights to air "ER" through the 2000-2001 television season.
The ensemble drama about a hospital emergency room has been the most popular show on television the past three seasons. And with NBC losing high-rated "Seinfeld" and rights to carry professional football games, the network had little choice but to pay the price: $286 million a year for the rights to 22 episodes, which is more than 6 1/2 times the $1.9 million per episode it now pays.
"Obviously,it's a fabulous deal for our side and hopefully for NBC. It's the biggest deal that has ever been made in the history of television as far as a series is concerned," said Robert Daly, chairman of Warner Bros.
"We are very excited to have reached this agreement," said Don Ohlmeyer, West Coast president for NBC. "And we look forward to an additional three years of riveting, dramatic television as the series continues to anchor our prime-time schedule Thursday nights at 10." "ER" pulls in 32 million viewers each week.
"We on the show are delighted that we are staying home at NBC," said John Wells, executive producer of the Emmy-winning series, whose stars include Anthony Edwards, George Clooney and Eriq LaSalle. "This has been a very unusual situation."
In fact, it was unprecedented for a No. 1 series to become available to the highest bidder. The situation was the result of the initial short-term contract negotiated between Warner Bros., which produces and owns the show, and NBC, which airs it.
Networks do not own most of the shows they air. Instead they pay a licensing fee to the production companies -- such as Warner Bros. -- that make the shows.
The fee allows the network two exclusive airings of each episode one in the fall and one in summer rerun. Essentially, networks rent the episodes from the production companies and then show them to the American public, making their profit by taking in more in advertising dollars than they pay in rental fees.
Les Moonves, now president of CBS Entertainment, was head of Warner Bros. when the initial "ER" contract was negotiated with NBC. He made no secret that CBS was going to bid for "ER," which premiered in September 1994, when it was up for grabs. That's where the bidding war, which was joined by Fox, started. CBS was prepared to pay $10 million an episode, Moonves said.
"It's like Michael Jordan became a free agent," he said. "Boy, we would have loved to have it. But the 'Seinfeld' situation made it more of a must-get for NBC."
Moonves was referring to Jerry Seinfeld's announcement last month that his hit Thursday-night sitcom would not return next season despite NBC's offer of $100 million to Seinfeld alone.
Seinfeld was worth that much to NBC, because his series served what programmers call a tent pole on early Thursday -- it propped up audiences and provided higher ratings for shows airing immediately before and after it. "Seinfeld" generates $200 million in profit for the network.
Together, "Seinfeld" and "ER" propped up the entire NBC prime-time schedule. Their margin of victory was so wide on Thursdays over the past three years that NBC wound up the No. 1 network across the week in prime time.
It is unlikely that "ER" alone will be enough to keep NBC No. 1
next season, but experts had been predicting in recent weeks that NBC's prime time would be on the verge of collapse next year without it.
"The 'ER' figure went up as the perception of our prospects declined in recent days," an NBC executive, who asked that his name not be used, said yesterday.
Beyond "Seinfeld," the executive was referring to NBC winding up as odd-network-out this week after losing out in astronomical bidding wars to CBS for Sunday professional football games and ABC for "Monday Night Football."
With speculation also mounting that "Mad About You" will not return next season, it was imperative for NBC to keep "ER" not just for the ratings next fall but so as not to be seen as a loser today.
"As a fan and a peacock employee, all I can say is that I'm thrilled to have these negotiations behind us," NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield said.
Pub Date: 1/15/98