If Marcus Welby were on call today, he'd probably have a heart attack. Today's TV doctors are too busy juggling psychotic patients, sleep deprivation, drug addiction, budget-slashing bosses, supply-closet trysts, ER shootouts, helicopter crashes and hallucinations to practice bedside manners.
There's one matter, though, that they don't have to worry about: employment.
Medical series have never been healthier, with three new network dramas —"Three Rivers," "Mercy" and "Trauma" — joining an already crowded field that includes "House," "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice" and "Scrubs," which returns midseason.
Local stations have found room in their afternoon schedules for both "The Doctors," a medical version of "The View," and "The Dr. Oz Show," which comes with a referral from Oprah Winfrey. Add the fact that physicians portray superheroes on "The Biggest Loser" and that many of the crime fighters on "CSI" and "Bones" have memorized the New England Journal of Medicine, and you have a small-screen squad that would rival the staff at the Mayo Clinic.
"So often in television you have a certain number of things that enter the wind, and you end up with a lot of shows in a certain area," said Gail Berman, the former entertainment president for Fox TV, who now serves as an executive producer for "Mercy." "This year it's medical. You just go with the flow."
Not that the onslaught won't get some executives' hearts racing. Lloyd Braun, Berman's creative partner, remembers that he hesitated to sign off on a promising pilot back when he was co-chairman of ABC entertainment, only because the network had already watched a number of other efforts flatline. At the very last minute, he agreed to give the program a chance. The series: "Grey's Anatomy."
Of course, "Grey's" isn't exactly in the pink these days, thanks to the departure of T.R. Knight and the behind-the-scenes whining of Katherine Heigl, leading the new competitors to believe they can pick up some of the aging series' regulars. But the clientele they really covet are the fans of "ER," which ended its staggering, highly lucrative 15-year run last season.
"It's the 800-pound gorilla — and it's gone," said Dario Scardapane, creator of "Trauma." "I think a lot of people want to find out what the 21st-century version of a medical show will be. I know that's what we're shooting for."
The formula dates back to an era long before everyone wanted to be examined by George Clooney. "Medic," starring Richard Boone, was making the rounds in 1954 and series such as "Julia," "M*A*S*H" and "St. Elsewhere" have served as milestones in TV history.
"With the big three — the legal show, the cop show, the medical show — they all have kind of built-in stakes," Scardapane said. "It's life or death, and nobody's numb to life or death."
Scardapane doubles down on his bet that viewers won't be bored by ratcheting up the action. The paramedics and docs of his San Francisco-based "Trauma" move at speeds that make the "ER" staff seem to be operating in slow motion.
The success of "CSI" has also convinced networks that they can take audiences into the belly of the beast — literally.
"I'm struck by how realistic today's medical shows are," said Alfre Woodard, who earned two Emmy nominations in the 1980s for her work on "St. Elsewhere" and now punches in at "Three Rivers." "I don't think we ever actually saw a heart or lung on 'St. Elsewhere.' Now, you know, some of the viewers could practically help with the procedures."