How ‘ER’ and ‘Friends’ ‘Pushed Their Form at the Time’ to Dominate Ratings and Become Modern Classics

How 'ER' and 'Friends' 'Pushed Their Form' to Become Modern Classics

By many accounts, 1994 was a notable year in the world of media. It was, after all, when Nancy Kerrigan was attacked, the terrorists in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing convicted, OJ Simpson arrested in the murder of his wife and her friend and a Major League baseball strike. But after all of these things came the launches of two series that would go on to change the way small-screen storytelling was developed and discussed for decades to come. The cinematic medical drama “ER” premiered with a two-hour pilot on Sept. 19, 1994, and just days later, the multicamera, half-hour comedy “Friends” followed on Sept. 22, 1994.

Although at first glance, the shows’ genres and formats may seem to set them wildly apart, both boasted ensemble casts of soon-to-be stars, and both had unique, authentic and specific storytelling points of views that stemmed from their creators. Perhaps most importantly to those on the business side of things, both also spoke to previously underserved audiences. These latter elements are ones that have become increasingly essential over time, as the amount of content available has only continued to grow.

“We knew at the time that we were entering into a world of choice: the number of channels was at 50 but on its way to 100,” producer Warren Littlefield, who was the president of NBC Entertainment in the 1990s, overseeing “ER” and “Friends” (among many others), tells Variety. “So what started to emerge for us was not being necessarily something for everyone, but having a large core group that would say, ‘I must get to my television, I must see this, this speaks to me.'”

For Littlefield, “Friends” co-creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane’s pitch did just that because it came out of their own experience as young adults in New York, which “provided an authenticity and provided a point of view,” he says. “And that specificity, that authenticity, that vision spoke to us. And in the way the world has gone in the last 25 years, that message is only more true today: Make it for a passionate, loyal audience. They can smell when it’s a fake, so respect the audience; they know a lot more than you may be giving them credit for, and you will be rewarded for aiming high.”

Because of the volume increase of television options in the early-1990s, Littlefield says it was “no longer a guarantee that networks would rule the world and be the only choice. So that kind of forced us into a strategic analysis of ‘Who do we want to be? Our tent is still a big tent, but maybe we have to construct it in a way that would have some specificity and also would differentiate us from everybody else.'”

One of the ways NBC was actively looking to try to do this was in reaching the “young, urban adults,” Littlefield recalls. “We were getting premiums for quality, we were getting premiums for upscale and college-educated, and we thought, ‘Look, we need to speak to that audience,'” he says.

“Friends” was a show that specifically spoke to that because co-creators Crane and Kauffman had based their premise of six 20-somethings living in New York City on their own experiences after college. NBC knew in order to do it right, Littlefield says, it couldn’t be a star vehicle but instead cast with up-and-comers who would organically feel like those fresh-faced characters they were portraying.

“In every one of these urban markets across the country, young people are trying to figure out how you leave mom and dad, how you go out on your own, how you absolutely afford to live on your own, and every one of those markets, it was very expensive and the pressure was enormous — the financial, as well as the emotional. So it did seem to me that there was a relevant target to that show, and for whatever bizarre reason, no one was speaking to that experience,” he says.

Once NBC committed to the Warner Bros.-produced pilot, Littlefield says there was “immediate buzz in the marketplace” from talent agents, which he considers “your first sign that you might be onto something.” After receiving nearly 1000 actor submissions for each role, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer ultimately received the six coveted roles.

“ER” was slightly different as procedurals were already “within our DNA,” Littlefield admits, noting the network’s history of ending Thursday nights, which consisted of two-hour blocks of comedy, with “the best drama on television.”

Combining a 150-page, 20-year-old script from Michael Crichton with the producing power of Amblin Television and Steven Spielberg, Littlefield notes some people thought they were just “star-f—ing” at the time, but he didn’t see a downside to a project that had such talent attached and was willing to give them, along with John Wells, the “creative freedom” to present their vision with the idea in mind that they were designing the product for Thursday nights at 10 o’clock on NBC.

Part of that vision was to treat the camera as a character, with the opening shot being a long take that travels around the hospital to more fully immerse the audience in the world. This was a technique not often used on television, and it added to the high-intensity of the setting while also making the audience feel like it was getting up close and personal with the “doctors who were heroic but also human,” Littlefield notes.

“John understood how to reinvent the medical procedural and bring something that was new to the form, and that separated it from anything else that was out there and anything else that had come before,” he says.

Bu there, too, the power of the ensemble proved key. “There were five series leads who were off the charts,” Littlefield says of the cast that included George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Eriq La Salle, Julianna Margulies and Noah Wyle. “In any other pilots, having one of those characters would have sustained the show: here we had five, all wearing the same smock.”

At launch, NBC scheduled “Friends” into the 8:30 p.m. time slot on Thursday nights, nestled between the already successful “Mad About You” at 8 p.m. and “Seinfeld” at 9 p.m., while “ER” received the coveted Thursday at 10 p.m. slot reserved for the network’s prestige dramas dating back to “Hill Street Blues” and more recently previously filled with “LA Law.” “ER” debuted to the tune of 23.8 million total live viewers, and by the end of the season it had averaged a 20 rating, taking the No. 2 spot on Nielsen’s charts (behind only “Seinfeld”). The “Friends” premiere drew 20.2 million total live viewers and a 14.7 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic. The first season overall ticked up to a 15.6 rating, making it the No. 8 show on the Nielsen charts for the year.

“We had nights where we averaged 25 ratings points for the night. The night was the sum of the parts; it was those outstanding parts, and each helped fuel the others,” Littlefield says. “No one’s ever put together a night like that since.”

The only ratings equivalent Littlefield can think of today are live sporting events, but when he looks at content, he does see the influence of such shows as “Friends” on today’s comedies. Hulu’s “Ramy,” for example, is a show with what Littlefield calls “point of view that is true to its concept and speaks to living in a world today in a way that is just as relevant as what ‘Friends’ was at its time.”

As time went on with both shows, the audience expanded. “Friends” was a show that saw 25% of its audience in the over 50 demographic, Littlefield reports, in part “because it’s fun to remember what it was like to have those firsts. But additionally, it was because Crane and Kauffman “were telling stories that invited everybody in,” he adds. “ER” was often called “action-hour” due to the urgent pacing of the storytelling and movement of the camera, and allowing the show to shoot on location in Chicago, Ill. — something that was also rarely explored on network television — added to the realism of the world that enticed viewers. Additionally, wrestling with healthcare was a hot topic of the time, he recalls, but “this show said, ‘Hey, you’re safe here.'”

Throughout the success of the shows, Littlefield says the network did not get heavily involved in offering story suggestions, let alone demands. His one point of contention was that Standards & Practices had didn’t want them showing condoms on “Friends.”

“We were like, ‘Wait a minute, we actually must show a condom. We have young adults having sex, and it’s responsible sex,'” he says. “They were like, ‘Well, we don’t take advertising for condoms.’ ‘Well you should!'”

Now, two-and-a-half decades later, Littlefield looks back on the success of both “ER” and “Friends” as a moment in time when all of the right elements aligned and therefore is not something he thinks could be duplicated.

“We were in the hands of really talented creators who were coming from a place that they were very connected to,” Littlefield says. “The forms have evolved, but I think there was something that was extremely pure and satisfying in both, and they pushed their form at the time. It’s what helped make them remarkable.”