‘ER’ Farewell: The 10 p.m. Drama Flatlines at NBC

As one of the non-bold-face names at Warner Bros.’ classy farewell party for “ER” on Saturday night (and for a more detailed list of the who’s who that attended, see Cynthia Littleton’s recap on her blog), I couldn’t help but think that the affair marked more than just a goodbye to a program, but an era.

NBC will replace “ER” starting April 9 with “Southland,” a new series from “ER” producer John Wells created by Ann Biderman. A full review will come later, but it’s an extremely promising cop drama set in Los Angeles — one that arrives already living on borrowed time in terms of its timeslot, given NBC’s commitment to strip Jay Leno at 10 p.m. in the fall.

Granted, there’s not much of a distinction anymore content-wise between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. dramas, but NBC’s financially-driven decision to carve back primetime will decrease the amount of network real estate for dramatic fare.

The irony is that “ER” itself was birthed when NBC was in the dumps and people were speculating that the network might have to make some kind of big structural shift. Instead, NBC — then under Warren Littlefield, who was at Saturday’s event, and Don Ohlmeyer — used the final episode of “L.A. Law” to air an extended promotional spot touting its new medical drama, which premiered in the fall of 1994 and, along with “Friends,” set the stages for what would become a pretty remarkable turnaround.

Fifteen years later, it’s hard to see how NBC can pull off another Lazarus-like resurrection. Indeed, after the tepid debut for the new drama “Kings,” there’s reason to be concerned as to whether the network has the critical mass anymore to adequately launch a new hour — and the Leno move makes the prospects of a dramatic breakthrough that much less likely.

That’s the real consequence of giving Leno five hours in primetime. Sure, stripping an inexpensive talk program mitigates the cost of failure, but that also blunts NBC’s opportunities for success. It’s a way of saying that as long as we can make some money on Leno, we’re willing to throw in the towel on introducing the kind of game-changing hit — always a long shot, but at least a possibility — that “ER” became. In a way, then, the diminished status of dramas becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

During the speeches at Saturday’s event, NBC Entertainment Co-Chairman Ben Silverman introduced Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer as “my future boss,” a harmless quip about the rumors that seem to crop up every few years about Warner Bros. being in the market to acquire NBC Universal. Still, Warner Bros. has a very different attitude about rolling the dice by investing in dramatic programming than NBC, which increasingly prefers to focus on its cable assets and pretend as if the flagship network is something of an afterthought.

For his part, Meyer said of “ER” that there is “no show in the history of the studio that has made us so proud for so long.” He left out “made us so rich,” but this is a studio boss, after all, so that was clearly implied.

Other dramas — including “Southland” — will make the studio proud again. But the days of a new dramatic hit being instrumental in helping get NBC off life support — as “ER” once did — appear to be a thing of the past.

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