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A little surgery can go a long way toward improving the health of a prime-time network TV schedule.

Just consider NBC, which catapulted itself from a weak third-place to a strong second-place contender inside of one season, largely on the strength of runaway hit "ER."

The prime-time medical drama is the most powerful new hit in recent memory, finishing the season in second place with a 20.0 Nielsen household rating.

But that doesn't even begin to show the full extent of the show's value to NBC, which is poised to make a mint off of what will easily be its biggest cash cow next season.

Based on the show's 1994-95 TV season performance, media buyers and network sales executives believe "ER" could be the most expensive show of the '95-96 season, rivaling the price of its NBC Thursday night bunkmate "Seinfeld."

Advertising Age estimated that "Seinfeld" fetched an average of $390,000 per 30-second spot at the start of the '94-95 season, and the two NBC hits will likely be selling well into the $400,000 range during this year's upfront market.

"A lot of people are going to want to be in that show. It was the biggest hit we've seen in a long time, and it keeps getting stronger," said media buyer Paul Schulman, president of the Paul Schulman Co., a unit of Advanswers Media/Programming, St. Louis.

"Seinfeld," a half-hour comedy, averages only eight 30-second spots per episode, while the hourlong "ER" will have twice that to sell. Based on those estimates, "ER" will easily take in $6.5 million per episode in the 1995-96 season. And much of that will be pure profit, because licensing fees for 1-hour dramas generally average a network about $1 million per episode. Even assuming "ER" has an above average budget, NBC stands to make $5 million per episode, or upwards of a quarter billion in annual profits from the show.

Not bad for a rookie going into its sophomore year. But then "ER" wasn't the only rookie that performed well for NBC. Another Thursday night freshman classmate, "Friends," also broke into the top 10 Nielsen rankings with a 16.1 rating.

Indeed, those two shows alone combined for 12% of all of the 8,423 prime-time rating points NBC accumulated during the 1994-95 TV season, according to an analysis by DeWitt Media, New York.

"Seinfeld" still led in share of those NBC rating points, with 7.1%, followed by "ER" with 6.6%, "Friends" with 5.4%, "Mad About You" with 5.2% and "Frasier" with 4.9%.

But combined, those five top NBC shows accounted for 29.2%, or nearly a third of all of NBC's prime-time ratings points.

"The story gets even more pronounced when you shift from household ratings to adult demographics," said Hadassa Gerber, senior VP-media and planning at DeWitt.

Indeed, among adults ages 18 to 49, the so-called coveted prime-time demographic, "ER" accounted for nearly 8% of all prime-time rating points, and the top five NBC shows equaled 34%.

As a result, Ms. Gerber said those five shows carry an inordinate burden of NBC's revenues, not just in terms of what they take in individually but in terms of how they're used to package sales including other, less powerful prime-time fare.

"There are some clients that just want to buy those shows and just buy those nights, like movies, and they pay a premium for it. But most other advertisers will buy it as a package," she said. "But how much is Thursday night worth to NBC? A lot."

Based on current estimates for what NBC could fetch for its new Thursday night season, it's conceivable the network will reap $15 million each Thursday night in ad sales. Moreover, NBC has built a new profit center on Tuesdays, by moving "Frasier" and "Wings" there, and has recently cultivated at least two new promising hits.

"On NBC, you can be sure that their fall schedule will include `ER,' `Friends,' "Hope & Gloria' and `NewsRadio,'*" Mr. Schulman predicted. "That's four shows that have really become building blocks for NBC's schedule for next year."

CBS, on the other hand, has only two such building blocks, according to Mr. Schulman: "Cybill" and "Chicago Hope."

In an ironic way, Mr. Schulman said CBS has the most to gain next season, not just because it lost the most momentum this season but because it has an opportunity to take the greatest risk at cultivating new hits. "It's the network in the tough position that gambles the most," he said. "And when you gamble, you're chances are greater at striking gold."

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