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Will NBC pay $10-million per episode?

How odd for the most powerful purveyor of televised entertainment in the history of the medium to find itself backed into a corner with nowhere to turn.

That's exactly where NBC is, though, as it approaches negotiations with Warner Bros. Television for the right to air ER beyond this season. ER, the anchor of NBC's Thursday-night schedule, just began its fourth season of original broadcasts and remains, by any measure, the most popular show on television.

NBC now pays about $2-million for two runs of each new episode of ER, but several industry executives told the New York Times on Monday that the cost for next season could skyrocket to an unprecedented $10-million per episode.

NBC would be crazy to agree to pay that much for the show, but it also would be crazy not to. In other words, NBC has to pay whatever it takes to keep ER _ just as, last spring, it agreed to pay an unprecedented $5.5-million per episode to renew Seinfeld for this season and possibly next.

The impact of ER extends well beyond prime time for NBC. It is ER that feeds prime time's largest audiences into the late newscasts of NBC-owned stations and affiliates around the country.

ER also is the powerful promotional engine for Thursday's installments of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

All this will give Warner Bros. an unmatchable bargaining position when it sits down in earnest for ER renewal talks come February. NBC could try to low-ball or even threaten to walk away from the $10-million figure, an obvious money-loser for the network. But that would open up the negotiations to bidding.