Roth recalls ‘ER’s’ huge first season

WB TV topper remembers the ratings bonanza

If anything ever happened to me, I would want to go to County General,” says Warner Bros. TV topper Peter Roth, in what could be construed as the highest praise for “ER,” the series that set up residence on Soundstage 11 at the Burbank lot 15 years ago and is only now saying goodbye.

Certainly, Roth could afford a medical facility that might rank higher on a list of the best hospitals in the country, but his sentiments are clearly understood.

All that is well and good, but the show wouldn’t have become the signature medical program it became if nobody tuned in. And while it now seems almost inconceivable that “ER” could’ve failed early on, even more ironic is that it nearly didn’t even make it on the air.

Leslie Moonves, who was the head of Warner Bros. at the time “ER” was pitched to NBC, supported the show vigorously even though the Peacock had reservations about the frenetic look of the pilot as well as the medical jargon. But the show landed a plum 10 p.m. Thursday spot, taking over for Emmy champ “L.A. Law” and generated enormous heat right away.

“My memory is firm,” says John Miller, chief marketing officer at the NBC Universal Television Group: “We started as a two-hour pilot and got a 27 share. The next week it was up to a 30 share, week four was a 33, and by November it was a 40 share.”

Those numbers are almost incomprehensible today for a primetime drama series, but those were heady times. And the ratings were huge for years to come, making one think that both Warner Bros. and NBC might be interested in a spinoff.

Certainly, that worked for “Cheers,” which segued into “Frasier,” and the Peacock also spun off “Law and Order” into a megahit franchise. It certainly wouldn’t have been unheard to create an “ER: Los Angeles,” “ER: Boston” and so on if that’s what the studio and network had wanted.

“There had been discussions about it, but it didn’t happen,” Roth says. “The principal players felt they didn’t want to sully the reputation of the golden goose. I always respected that. It never came to serious fruition, and appropriately so. ‘ER’ is an institution, and nothing should take away from the sanctity of that.”

Miller confirms, “There was talk about it, but many of the people involved in the show wanted to keep it pure.”

Going forward, now that “ER” is ending its run, exec producer John Wells will move on to “Southland,” a drama about the Los Angeles Police Dept. that will fill the 10 p.m. Thursday timeslot “ER” vacates. “ER” exec producer Chris Chulack will direct and exec produce.

As for the actors’ future projects: Scott Grimes is set to co-star in Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” with Russell Crowe, David Lyons has been cast in the NBC pilot “Day One,” and Linda Cardellini will voice a part in the upcoming Mike Judge animated series on ABC, “A Goode Family.”