NBC is close to a deal to pay Warner Bros. Television an estimated $5 million per episode to keep cornerstone Thursday sitcom “Friends” on the air through mid-2002.
Pact, which could net the studio nearly $220 million over two years, represents one of the most lucrative license fee agreements for a sitcom in modern TV history.
NBC paid Castle Rock $5.5 million per seg for “Seinfeld” during that show’s final season, while “Mad About You” fetched $3.3 million per seg last season for Col TriStar.
Industry insiders say NBC currently pays WBTV no more than $3 million per seg for “Friends.”
Still to be completed is a deal with the six main stars of “Friends,” who have yet to re-up with WBTV beyond the upcoming 1999-2000 season, the show’s sixth. Thesps are now making around $100,000 per episode and are likely to get significant pay hikes from Warner Bros. to stay for seasons seven and eight.
In an unusual display of generosity aimed in part, no doubt, at smoothing the course of future contract renegotiations, WBTV last year gave each of the “Friends” stars a Christmastime cash bonus of $200,000 — the equivalent of two episodes’ salary.
Industry insiders say it wouldn’t be surprising if the “Friends” stars are now able to command at least $250,000 per seg to return for one or two more years.
2 more seasons
NBC’s current deal for “Friends” expires at the end of the 1999-2000 season. Under the new agreement now being finalized with WBTV, the Peacock would keep “Friends” for two more seasons, through the 2001-2002 season.
It’s unclear if the new deal includes guarantees for other WBTV series or a clause mandating NBC keep the show on Thursday nights. Reps for NBC and WBTV both refused to comment about the specifics, or even the existence, of a new agreement.
While the $5 million figure for “Friends” is far below the $13 million per seg Warner Bros. got NBC to pay in exchange for a three-year renewal deal on “ER,” the dollar amounts aren’t so dissimilar when measured on a per-hour cost basis. By that measure, “Friends” will bring in an estimated $10 million per hour.
Produced by Bright/Kauffman/ Crane, “Friends” is one of the keys to NBC’s continued Thursday dominance.
Last season, the laffer averaged 23.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched comedy on television, and the second most-watched show of any kind, behind only WBTV’s “ER.”
“Friends” was also the top-rated comedy among adults 18-49, dipping just 1% below 1997-98 numbers — an amazing accomplishment during a season in which almost every other veteran show on NBC posted double-digit declines.
Bright/Kauffman/Crane’s two other NBC series, “Veronica’s Closet” and “Jesse,” will return for their third and second seasons, respectively, in September.