Nbc's Prime Time Emergency

After losing football, NBC acts fast to lock in No. 1 show ER

This may be the winter of discontent for NBC. Over just three weeks, the No.1 network grappled with the loss of both Seinfeld and major-league football. The New York tabloids--and even The New York Times--kept up a steady drumbeat of stories that NBC was on the ropes.

The Peacock network broke its losing streak on Jan. 14 by renewing its No.1 show, ER, for three more seasons. Now, NBC stands a good chance of retaining dominance of Thursday night--the most sought-after night by advertisers.

SHARP PAIN. But even NBC's win foreshadows trouble ahead. At $13 million an episode, ER has easily become the most expensive series in television history, far surpassing the more than $5 million NBC agreed to pay last year for Seinfeld. All told, NBC will shell out nearly $900 million for the show.

The ER deal capped a week of stunningly expensive TV deals. CBS, ABC (with its corporate cousin ESPN), and Fox anted up a staggering total of $17.6 billion over eight years for the right to televise National Football League games, even though the games' ratings have been slipping in recent years. NBC's deal for ER, completed with a preemptive, final bid to producer Warner Brothers Inc. in mid-January, shows how badly the networks fear losing the few programs that guarantee big ratings--and how deeply they fear reliving the pain CBS suffered after it let football get away in 1993. "There's no financial logic here," says Merrill Lynch & Co. analyst Jessica Reif Cohen. "It's all strategic." But will it ever pay off?

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