NBC signs ER, but for millions less

NBC's drama ER will remain open through 2003-04.

In an effort to secure its long-term Thursday-night success, NBC gave the Warner Bros. drama a three-year renewal that will keep the medical series on the air through its 10th season.

Prime time television's most expensive drama will take a pay cut starting in fall 2001, from $13 million per episode to $8 million to $9 million per episode under the new contract, sources say. It will remain the most expensive drama on network television, though. The current contract runs through May 2001.

Some in Hollywood say the ER renewal may be a goodwill gesture by NBC, which is trying to woo Warner Bros. with a renewal of the studio's other top series Friends. The contract for the Thursday-night sitcom ends after the current season, and negotiations for another year are expected to go down to the wire. NBC and Warner Bros. executives had no comment.

ER, currently in its sixth season, will likely receive an NBC guarantee to remain in its Thursday 10 p.m. time slot, sources say. The deal is not cast-contingent, so NBC will be forced to keep ER going even if some of the show's top stars bow out early. Cast members Noah Wyle, Anthony Edwards and Eriq La Salle are under contract through the 2001-02 season.

The drama has been network TV's highest-rated prime time drama since its arrival in 1994, but it has shown some erosion this season. ER is off 1.2 million viewers from last year at this time (25.4 million vs. 24.2 million), but remains the top show on television in the key adults 18-49 demographic, averaging an 11.6 rating/31 share season-to-date, according to Nielsen Media Research.