ER becomes most expensive programme in TV history

The cast of the cult television soap ER have become the highest paid performers in television history, with the NBC network in America agreeing to pay pounds 8.2m per one hour episode in order to keep the show for another three years.

The hospital drama, which is broadcast first on Sky in Britain and the on C4, stars the heart throb George Clooney and, since last year, the British actress Alex Kingston, star of Moll Flanders on British television and the former wife of the actor Ralph Fiennes.

ER has been America's number one prime-time show with a weekly audience of 33 million. The new three-year deal with ER's creators, Warner Brothers, will work out at pounds 536m for 22 episodes per season. NBC at present pays "just" pounds 1m per episode and earns around pounds 10m in advertising.

The new fee per episode easily beats the present record holder - pounds 3m per episode for the American comedy Seinfeld, also on NBC. The star of that show, Jerry Seinfeld, has decided to close the show at the end of the year.

As for the stars of ER, George Clooney is the highest paid member of the cast earning around pounds 100,000 an episode. Alex Kingston, who has rapidly become a key member of the cast since making her debut in the documentary- within-a-drama opening to the latest series, earns around pounds 30,000 per episode, only half as much as the highest paid female star, Julianna Marguilies. How much each actor receives under the new deal will depend on the new contracts their agents will hurriedly negotiate.

The desire of other American networks, including Rupert Murdoch's Fox empire, to lure the show away from NBC hastened the network's decision to pay out the record sum.