NBC's ER premiered 20 years ago, changing the style of medical dramas by marrying fast-paced action with richly drawn characters and serialized storylines. Competing against it on Thursday nights was another medical drama, CBS' Chicago Hope.
ER aired for 15 seasons, ending in 2009, while Chicago Hope (which eventually moved to a different night) lasted six seasons, through 2000.
But these days, there aren't too many stethoscopes left in primetime. Grey's Anatomy remains, although it's more soap than scrubs. NBC's The Night Shift is coming back for a second season, but in the summer. And Fox's new drama Red Band Society, which was more about minors than medicine, wasn't picked up for a full season.
Other recent attempts were also short-lived, including David E. Kelley's TNT drama Monday Mornings, the CW's Emily Owens M.D. and ABC's Body of Proof. Besides Grey's, the last big medical drama in primetime was Fox's House, which concluded in 2012.
To correct TV's dearth of doctors, producers, studios and networks are developing a flurry of hospital-set projects for next season. "It was a need that all of the networks identified early on," says ABC Studios executive vice president Patrick Moran. "It felt odd, why hadn't anyone cracked a great medical show recently?"
Medicine is a hot topic all across the country — from affordable health care to the Ebola scare — which could help fuel viewer interest in a new wave of medical franchises. But "the interest in medical franchises pre-dates the Ebola news frenzy," Moran says. "We were talking about this a year ago. Any time you can identify a piece of real estate that's not being covered, everybody will look at that and feel there's an opportunity to fill that gap."
Projects in the works include two at Fox: The thriller The Cure, from Glenn Gordon Caron (Moonlighting) and Malcolm Gladwell, centered around a neurologist, and Zoobiquity, based on the book about doctors who search the animal kingdom for cures to human ailments.
NBC is developing Critical, about a Latina doctor, from Eva Longoria's production company, as well as Heart Matters, from Amy Brenneman's company, based on real-life female cardiac surgeon Dr. Kathy Magliato.
ABC has 10 Beacon Hill, from writer Amy Holden Jones, about a team of doctors led by a genius and his 17-year-old niece; the medical thriller Cold Blood, about a physicians who cross ethical lines; a show based on a former literary agent who became a medical advocate; and The Pharm, about the world of pharmaceutical sales.
CBS is working on a whopping nine doctor shows, including two from ER alum Neal Baer: Windward Clinic, about a health care workers who treat the underprivileged, and Sick City, inspired by stories of the Los Angeles Department of Health. "We pitched this before Ebola," Baer says of Sick City. "It's about panic and how panic is managed by the press. I'm looking forward to writing that one. I can't predict what will happen, but CBS has been extremely supportive.
Also at the Eye network: Code Black, set inside a busy Los Angeles emergency room; an adaptation of a South Korean drama from actor Daniel Dae Kim's production company; a drama about a prison surgeon from producer Halle Berry; Austen's Razor, inspired by bioethicist Arthur L. Kaplan; LFE, about a group of second-year residents at a New York hospital; Dusty, about a woman who practices both law and medicine; and one set at a Silicon Valley hospital, from Parenthood executive producer Jason Katims.
As is always the case with development, most of these projects won't move forward. But with so much desire to find the next ER, it's a safe bet that some of these will at least be filmed as pilots.
"The challenge," Moran says, "is shows like Grey's and ER raise the bar. When you're thinking about ideas, how do you do better than what has been done? That's something that keeps us up at night."