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‘ER’ May Become Free Agent TV Show

November 7, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Imagine Michael Jordan, in his prime, becoming a true free agent willing to play for whatever NBA team meets his price.

That gives you a little idea of the turbulence facing the television industry as it waits to see whether ``ER″ switches teams.

TV’s top-rated show could become a free agent, able to land on any network next fall, if its owners don’t strike a deal with NBC by March 1. The New York Times said this week that the studio producing ``ER″ wants $10 million per episode from NBC, five times what it is getting now and nearly double the haul of any other show.

How big are the stakes?

If Jordan left the Bulls, there’s a strong chance a championship would follow him. The same is true in television, where NBC risks losing the prestige and advertising revenue that comes with ruling the ratings.

Free agency is a relatively new concept in TV. Shows have occasionally hopped networks _ like ``Family Matters″ abandoning ABC for CBS this fall _ but never a series of the magnitude of ``ER.″

Consider the chaos if this spreads: ``Masterpiece Theater″ on Fox, A&E’s ``Biography″ on the Weather Channel (The Doppler Radar Guy, Part 3), ``Beavis and Butt-head″ reruns on PBS.

Oops, let’s not get carried away. For the average viewer, free agency might mean a little confusion and a few extra clicks on the remote. Yet Hollywood shudders at the thought and has reason to pray ``ER″ is an anomaly and not a trendsetter.

The fear is that escalating costs could ultimately stifle creativity.

``This would be the start of major wars in the area of programming,″ said Paul Schulman, a television analyst who owns a company that buys advertising time. ``The fights over the shows would be awful.

``You would have ridiculous expenses for production costs,″ he said. ``The networks would be in a position where they would be pretty damned sure that they own a piece of a show before they put it on.″

Some in Hollywood already grumble that NBC gives preference to scheduling mediocre shows in which it has an ownership stake instead of buying from independent studios. Schulman believes fear of free agency will only make it worse, and opportunities for independent producers with fresh ideas would begin to dry up.

Think of the implications for future schedules this way: NBC’s dreary ``Union Square″ squared. Or cubed.

Ultimately, ``ER’s″ situation seems more likely to be a fluke. Usually networks lock up shows for many years at the first whiff of success. For whatever reason, NBC failed here and the lesson is not likely to be lost.

We’ll bet _ though maybe not $10 million _ that NBC will take advantage of its exclusive right to negotiate with Warner Brothers over ``ER’s″ future before a bidding war can begin in March.

Ten million dollars per show may seem like an absurd price to pay _ ``Seinfeld″ is now tops at $5.5 million per show _ but some network executives privately believe that’s a bargain.

Not only does the show’s high ratings allow NBC to sell advertising slots at the premium price of $500,000 per half-minute, but experts say ``ER″ lifts the ratings of the shows after it _ the local news, the ``Tonight″ show and even ``Late Night″ with Conan O’Brien.

With ``Seinfeld″ nearing the end of the line and NBC having trouble developing new hits, the network can’t afford to see its Thursday night powerhouse lineup crumble.

Warner Brothers also has motivation to stay put. Although the studio sells shows to several networks, it’s doing best now on NBC with ``Friends,″ ``Veronica’s Closet″ and ``Suddenly Susan.″ NBC President Robert Wright told the Times that a nasty fight with Warner ``would undoubtedly color our relationship with them as a supplier.″

``Friends″ isn’t going anywhere, but will ``Veronica’s Closet″ always be blessed with such a heavenly time slot?

And even though ``ER″ is riding high now, the track record of television shows shifting to other networks and doing well is small.

The diagnosis: ``ER″ keeps operating on NBC.

___

Elsewhere in television ...

BRAVO SAM FULLER: The Independent Film Channel and Bravo will pay tribute tonight to maverick film director Sam Fuller, who died on Halloween. The sister networks will devote their evening schedules to a documentary on Fuller’s life, ``The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera,″ and air some of his films, including ``The Steel Helmet,″ ``I Shot Jesse James,″ ``Shock Corridor″ and ``The Naked Kiss.″

___

David Bauder can be reached at dbauder″at″ap.org

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