Thursday, April 2, 2009

The End of an ER-a

It has been an especially dramatic few days for both the medium and the business of television.

Over about a 24 hour period (from April 1st to 2nd), the following took place:
  • CBS announced the cancellation of the longest running scripted program in broadcast history, Guiding Light -- a show that started on radio in 1937;
  • The flagship program of NBC's "must-see" TV for the last 15 years, ER, aired its last episode;
  • Boston's NBC affiliate WHDH declared it would not air Jay Leno's new program at 10pm Monday through Friday (instead the station will air local news);
  • The 2008 Peabody Awards were announced, with awards going to several Internet sites, including The New York Times website, YouTube and The Onion News Network;
  • NBC Universal (parent company to Bravo) settled its lawsuit against The Weinstein Company over Project Runway's move to Lifetime.
All of these events are significant in different ways. However, I want to focus here on the departure of Guiding Light and ER from television.

I never watched Guiding Light. Yet somehow, it was reassuring to me to know that the show stayed on the air. Broadcasting may have changed in countless ways over the years, but this same daytime soap remained, airing Monday through Friday for decades on CBS. It just chugged along -- from the so-called Golden Age of radio through the classic network era, from the arrival of cable and satellite, into the present post-network era. The show survived several wars, presidents and economic crises. Indeed, it may still hang on, reappearing on another program service (or even online). But it will no longer be on a broadcast network.

While Guiding Light's departure resonated with me intellectually -- serving as but one more marker of how different the television of today is from the television of yore, ER's farewell hit me on a much more personal level.

ER was part of my weekly routine for years. I started watching while still an undergraduate, continued tuning in during graduate school and on into the early stages of my career as a professor. I viewed the show in four different parts of the country, through multiple friendships, relationships and late nights of work. I initially watched it "live" - rushing home to catch it no matter what I was up to on Thursday nights. I gradually shifted to recording it on my VCR, then finally caught it days after its initial airing on my Tivo.

Then last year, I stopped watching. Having seen one too many cast members leave and one too many storylines recycled for the umpteenth time, I "broke up" with ER. I had moved on to a newer medical drama, Grey's Anatomy. My lifestyle had changed, as had the ways that I thought about and consumed television.

And yet, last Thursday I sat down to watch the show one last time. On many levels, it was a bittersweet experience. I found the final episode itself to be well done overall. The show acknowledged many of the themes, images and storylines from years past without going overboard (for the most part). As far as concluding episodes of series go, this was one of the better ones.

As I watched this last episode, I tried to figure out why I was so much more saddened by the ending of this show than, say, Friends or Sex and the City or Will and Grace. I think part of the difference is the trajectory this specific show took. Typically when a program ends, at least some members of the original cast remain. Yet this was not the case with ER. Rather, all of the original cast members had long since left. Yet since these actors departed one by one over several years, rather than all at once, there was never a clear moment when the show shifted from what it was to something else entirely. This had the effect of making ER seem to simply peter out. Thus, when several cast members returned for this final episode, I was suddenly provided with a stark reminder of how compelling and engaging the show once was.

However, I wasn't moved by the final episode simply because it reminded me how much the show (and I) had changed over the years. I was also affected by realizing how much broadcasting itself had changed in the last fifteen years. During much of the 1990s, ER was a key marker of "quality" television programming produced by the broadcast networks. It appeared on the air at a time when reality programming was confined largely to cable outlets and Fox, when news magazines overran the prime time schedule, and when weekly "nights at the movies" still aired on the broadcast networks. ER had THE time slot on NBC's "Must-See" TV Thursdays -- a time slot previously occupied by Hill Street Blues and LA Law.

All of that is gone now. In a few short months, NBC will no longer have any dramas at 10 pm. In fact, it won't air any original fictional series at all from 10 to 11 p.m. Instead, Jay Leno will air at then - that is, if enough affiliates agree to air the program (something that remains to be seen).

Given the changing economics of the television business, it is quite likely that many of the dramas of the caliber of ER will appear on cable from here on out, not broadcast. NBC-Universal has essentially signaled as much with its recent declarations that its cable outlets (including Bravo, USA and SciFi/SyFy) are more profitable than its broadcast network.

Yes, television is changing, we all know that well. Last week's departure of ER -- occurring in tandem so many other dramatic industrial, technological and cultural shifts -- provides just one more poignant reminder of what television once was. "And In The End..." indeed.

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