MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- "E.R.," NBC's seminal series that jumped from the cover of TV Week to Newsweek in its first season, aired its last episode last night, ending an era not just for NBC but network TV. Since the drama's debut 15 years ago, few, if any scripted series can capture the national attention the same way reality TV does today.
After running a retrospective in the first hour of prime time, which delivered a 3.5/10 rating and share in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic, the two-hour series finale soared to a 6.0/16, which was 82% above its original-episode season average.
But as strong as the series-finale delivery was, compared to the last laugh for signature sitcoms "Cheers," "Seinfeld" and "Friends" -- "Must See TV" cornerstones that built NBC into the No. 1 network of the 1990s -- "E.R's" ratings also show just how much the media landscape has changed, and how much NBC's (let alone network TV's) demo delivery has deteriorated in the generation since "E.R." made its debut.
Last night's finale only delivered 14% of the 1993 "Cheers" finale, which blitzed pop culture with a Super Bowl sized 42.6/76. Half a decade later, "Seinfeld," the "show about nothing," was really something, as its finale had a 38.7/72. And the finale of "E.R." finale was still only 24% of the 2004 "Friends" finale, whose last group hug was embraced nationally by a 24.9/54.
Still, it was a rare Thursday win for NBC, although CBS's "Survivor" beat the "E.R. Retrospective" and won the first hour of prime time, despite dropping 14% to a 3.6/11. "CSI" (3.7/10) and "Eleventh Hour" (2.5/7) faced steeper slides of 29% and 17%, respectively, up against the finale.
'E.R.'s' victory caused those networks running original episodes to generally under-deliver. And with ABC running reruns of those other medical melodramas, "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice," NBC easily won with a 5.2/14, followed by CBS (3.3/9), Fox (2.9/8), the CW (1.6/4) and ABC (1.4/4) (all based on Nielsen fast-affiliate ratings, with final live-plus-same-day data released this afternoon).
Fox also faced audience attrition for "Bones" (2.6/8, off 13%) and "Hell's Kitchen" (tumbling 20% to a 3.2/8).
The night was even worse for ABC, which fell to fifth on a night it often wins. Not just because nearly three-quarters of the regular viewers for "Grey's" (1.5/4) and two-thirds of those for "Private Practice" (1.2/3) drifted from the drama repeats, but because it showed how hard it is to create the next game-changing Thursday-night sitcom, as "In the Motherhood" (1.6/5) and "Samantha Who?" (1.5/4) dropped 27% and 32%, respectively, from their Thursday night premieres last week.
This created the conditions for the CW to move from fifth to fourth, as its younger target probably wondered what all the fuss was all about, as most had to be in bed when the first season finale of "E.R.," in 1995, delivered a 17.9/41. Still, even "Smallville" was a bit smaller, slipping 6% from its season average to a 1.6/4, although "Supernatural" (1.5/4) jumped 7% from its original-episode average.
Even though (at least in the relatively younger 18-to-49 demo) the series finale of "E.R." didn't quite command the pop-culture national narrative, NBC can be pleased it won the night and proud (peacocks are allowed, after all) of the cultural and commercial excellence the series represented.
But whether pleased or proud, it probably won't last long. Because just as the final credits rolled came the opening act of what could be a long, legal fight: NBC's Boston affiliate has announced it won't run what NBC hopes will be the next generation of "Must See TV," Jay Leno's talk show, which is slated for its prime-time premiere in "E.R.'s" time slot next fall.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: It's a great weekend for sports drama, starting with drama itself: Since NBC's "Friday Night Lights" has been unexpectedly renewed for two more seasons, it's not too late to get in on one of TV's best scripted series.
Saturday: Then turn to what often is the best day of the annual NCAA basketball tournament: The two semifinal games, starting with Connecticut vs. Michigan State at 6 p.m., followed by North Carolina vs. Villanova, all on CBS.
Sunday: Finally, it's "Play ball!" as the Major League Baseball season opens with the Atlanta Braves vs. the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies on ESPN2.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Some sports-overloaded viewers to skip the national pastime in favor of country music, and watch the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards Sunday night on CBS.
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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.