Wednesday, November 15, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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With Emphasis On Conflict, `Er's Ratings Go Even Higher

Dallas Morning News

After a hard day in the emergency room, the doctors of "ER" used to lick their wounds together. Not this season.

Since the hottest TV drama in a decade returned with new episodes seven weeks ago, the residents of Chicago's fictitious County General Memorial Hospital have done little more than inflict injury on one another. But viewers understand.

In fact, as rifts have developed involving almost every character on the show, the sophomore series has just gotten hotter. Last Thursday, nearly half the homes watching television were tuned to "ER."

The episode's 45 share was the highest for a regularly scheduled drama since a May 1985 installment of "Dallas" received a 46. Share represents the percentage of TVs in use tuned in to that show. It was also the best-rated "ER" ever, and the highest rating for an NBC drama since Nielsen started keeping track of such things in the early '80s.

This season, the show has been consistently drawing a 40 share or better, something that no drama since "Dallas" and no comedies since "Cosby" and late-'80s "Roseanne" have done.

The reason?

Hit shows usually get more popular over time, and "ER" was pretty popular to begin with. But the infectious effect of Friday-morning water cooler conversations - Can you believe Dr. Ross slept with Harper? Do you think he's going to get fired? - isn't the only explanation worth exploring.

Try this: More people are watching because of all the conflict. After all, conflict is the basic building block of good drama. All season, "ER" has taken risks, especially with the likability of its characters, and the show has been better off for it. It's as if the audience's confidence has instilled a fearlessness in the "ER" producers, freeing them to take the show closer and closer to the edge.

"They're so well-liked by the audience that they can get away with a lot," Laura Innes, who plays new chief resident and chief troublemaker Kerry Weaver, says of the show's doctors. "Doug Ross can do a lot before the audience will leave him. They know that. They know how to push the envelope as far as it can go, and then they bring you back with one scene or a moment. I imagine they're percolating. They're just letting the creative juices flow."

That strategy by TV's top-rated series contrasts starkly with "NYPD Blue," television's second-most popular drama. While remaining solidly entertaining, Steven Bochco's cop show has been a bit too happy this season. Until Diane Russell (Kim Delaney) fell off the wagon last week after a fight with her dysfunctional family, the worst disagreement was between Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and his prosecutor wife Sylvia Costas (Sharon Lawrence). The issue: blabbing about her pregnancy to his co-workers.

Coincidence or not, "NYPD Blue's" ratings are down, a 16.6 through seven weeks vs. a 17.9 at this point last season. Meanwhile, conflict-ridden "ER" is moving in the other direction, averaging a 23.5 vs. an 18.4 at this point last season. (Those ratings are overall percentages of all TVs, not just TVs tuned in.)

Last week's episode, "Hell and High Water," was a high-water mark. After his battles with attending physician Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) led him to accept a cushy, high-paying job in a private facility, Dr. Ross (heartthrob George Clooney) ended up saving a drowning boy. But as a live TV broadcast of the rescue made the self-destructive pediatrician a media hero, a little girl victimized by a hit-and-run driver died outside the spotlight after equally heroic efforts by other doctors.

The bravado of the camera work as the patients were treated in adjoining rooms and the intensity of the acting was as thrilling as TV gets. That more than 48 million people were willing to be emotionally wrung out by a TV show is a credit to the unstoppable force that "ER" has become.

This week, the media will crown Dr. Ross, and he will remain at County General. But the friction wound with Dr. Greene has not healed, and the conflict between Dr. Benton (Eriq LaSalle) and physician's assistant Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben), his married ex-lover, heats up again.

`Murder One' moves

The huge success of "ER" was a key factor in ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert's announcement yesterday that "Murder One," the critically acclaimed drama series from Steven Bochco Productions, will move to 10 p.m. Monday beginning Jan. 8. It has taken a Nielsen beating against "ER" in recent weeks.

Tomorrow's airing of the "Chapter 8" episode will be the last Thursday broadcast of the series. Before the series is relaunched with "Chapter 9", a special hour recapping the first eight episodes - including some new material - will be produced and broadcast on a date to be determined.

Referring to "Murder One" vs. "ER," Harbert said: "It seemed like a good idea at the time. We fought the good fight and now will look to take advantage of a 10 p.m. time period that was not available in the fall. We remain very confident this excellent series can find the audience it deserves."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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