Sunday, March 15, 2009

Will the ratings boost George Clooney gave 'ER' help with Emmy voters?

The return of George Clooney to "ER" on Thursday gave the long-running medical drama its best rating in two years. NBC says 10.7 million people tuned in to catch up on what had happened to George Clooney's character since we last saw Doug Ross at the end of Season 6. While Clooney had left the show at the end of the fifth season when his contract expired, he returned then to film a cameo that saw him reuniting with on-again, off-again love Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) in Seattle.

Thursday's episode came almost nine years after that last appearance and we learned that the pair are now happily married and working together at a hospital in Seattle. While they delicately dealt with a grandmother (Susan Sarandon) deciding whether to donate the organs of her dying grandson, another fan favorite — Eriq La Salle as Peter Benton — was seen once more in a Chicago hospital. In a nice touch, he tended to his one-time student John Carter (Noah Wyle) as he underwent a kidney transplant.

Though those ratings are respectable enough in today's 100-plus channel universe — especially for a show finishing its 15th season — they are a far cry from the staggering numbers that "ER" used to get. For those first five seasons with George Clooney onboard, the show averaged an audience of just less than 30 million. Even for the next five seasons, the Thursday night staple still averaged a viewership of almost 22 million. Beginning with Season 11, the medical drama dropped out of the top 10. Last year — Season 14 — saw viewership fall below 10 million for the first time. Even though "ER" came in at only No. 54, that still put it in on a par with Emmy contenders such as "Boston Legal" (No. 51) and "Ugly Betty" (No. 53).

However, with the decline in ratings came a corresponding drop in Emmy attention. Over the course of its first 14 years, "ER" has amassed a record 122 Emmy nominations, with 22 wins. Beginning with its first season, it earned seven consecutive bids for best drama series, winning for Season 2 in 1996. But no regular cast member has been nominated for an Emmy since Season 7 when Maura Tierny contended for supporting actress. (She lost to Allison Janney for "The West Wing.") And the show has earned only 22 of its total Emmy nods since then, winning two tech awards and the guest actor Emmy for Ray Liotta in Season 11. While Tierney left "ER" at the beginning of this season, she is slated to return in this week's episode.

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