18 episodes to be produced over coming year

HOLLYWOOD — NBC couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present from its “Friends.”

The Peacock dipped deep into its pockets this weekend and agreed to pay Warner Bros. TV $10 million an episode for another season of the smash Thursday night laffer.

That makes “Friends,” entering its 10th season next fall, the most expensive primetime show in history. (At its peak, “ER” fetched $13 million, but that show is an hourlong drama).

The deal came with a catch: The “Friends” cast, led by Jennifer Aniston (who’s said to want to take time off to start a family) only agreed to produce 18 episodes over the coming year.

But a truncated “Friends” season — most laffers produce 22 or 24 segs a year — could wind up a holiday blessing for NBC, which now won’t necessarily have to break the bank despite the show’s hefty pricetag.

As a matter of fact, the $180 million NBC will have to cough up for “Friends” next season isn’t too different from the net’s “Friends” investment this season. The web currently pays $7 million an episode for “Friends,” which comes to $168 million after 24 episodes.

With extra repeats and perhaps a clip show thrown in for good measure, NBC may still be able to garner the same kind of advertising dollars had it picked up a full 22 segs.

Granted, NBC will likely lose money on the “Friends” deal. But it’s a loss leader for the web. After all, the alternative — no “Friends” on the NBC schedule for the first time since 1994 — would have been too painful to fathom at the network.

Like last year, when NBC and Warner Bros. jumped the gun by announcing a “Friends” renewal for the 2002-2003 season as the show’s final hurrah, the Peacock has dodged a crippling bullet and bought a little more time to develop a new generation of comedic hits.

It’s no secret that NBC hasn’t been able to capitalize on the tremendous popularity of “Friends,” having premiered a succession of duds behind the sitcom for years. And potential heirs to the throne, including “Scrubs,” haven’t quite hit the big time in terms of ratings.

As a result, while some industry execs pooh-poohed the idea of “Friends” returning — including even one senior Warner Bros. exec — momentum had built over the past three months that the show would indeed return after all, perhaps with a truncated season (Daily Variety, Sept. 26).

‘Quality of life’ issues

Ultimately, though, it was up to the show’s seven tight-knit cast members, most of whom had been leaning toward coming back for another season — particularly after the show picked up the outstanding comedy Emmy Award in September.

“Friends” had also reached new creative highs, thanks in part to a pregnancy storyline involving Aniston’s character.

Cast members weren’t shy in hinting at the show’s potential return. Lisa Kudrow, for example, this summer guested on Carrie Fisher’s Oxygen channel talkshow.

“We all get along, and we still have fun and the writers are still working hard and do good stories,” Kudrow told Fisher. “You look around and see that a lot of reasons shows finish is (that) their ratings are really bad. We were No. 1 for the first time in our eighth season.”

In the end, negotiations didn’t come down to money — the cast (Aniston, Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox-Arquette and Matthew Perry) will keep their same $1 million per episode salaries.

Rather, talks came down to the number of episodes they wanted to shoot next season. One insider referred to it as a “quality of life” issue.

Negotiations, which had started, stalled and restarted in recent weeks, revolved around how many episodes NBC, the “Friends” cast and Warner Bros. felt comfortable committing to.

Aniston, whom most critics believe has the best shot at a major feature career (“The Good Girl”), was the cast’s ultimate holdout. Insiders said Aniston was willing to return for another season, but wasn’t thrilled about a full 22-seg year.

Zucker persisted

Execs familiar with the negotiations credited NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker for persisting on a “Friends” deal. Zucker pushed the issue and refused to ever publicly refer to this year as “Friends'” final season.

“I wouldn’t 100% put nails in the coffin yet,” Zucker said at the Television Critics Assn. Press tour in July.

Latest hint that a “Friends” deal was on the way came last week, when the studio and network canceled plans to showcase the cast in a “farewell” press conference at the next TCA press tour in January.

NBC and Warner Bros. execs came to a tentative agreement around 10 p.m. Friday night, but aren’t expected to finalize the deal until today. The series, from exec producers Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin Bright, has averaged a 12.5 rating among adults 18-49 this season, making it the top-rated program on television by this measure.

As for Warner Bros., the $10 million fee from NBC allows the studio to produce “Friends” next season with no deficit. (The show is believed to cost between $9 million and $10 million a seg).

That gives Warner Bros. the ability to step back and rethink how to sell the 18-episode 10th season of “Friends” in the off-network marketplace.

Laffer’s first cycle in syndication fetched about $4 million an episode for Warner Bros. It’s unlikely stations, including the Tribune group, will make a play for the 10th season episodes. Warner Bros. can now make a deal elsewhere; with its deficit covered for next season, the studio isn’t under pressure to strike another mega-rich deal.

‘Wing’ next up

Meanwhile, with one series renegotiation out of the way, NBC and Warner Bros. return to the bargaining table soon to determine the fate of “The West Wing.”

“West Wing,” while an important part of NBC’s sked and a strong performer with desirable, high-income demos, has seen its ratings decline this season.

As a result, Peacock is less likely to find itself paying a huge increase on the show’s license fee.

But with 18 episodes of “Friends” saving NBC a potential $40 million (had it picked up a full 22 segs), Warner Bros. execs hope they can now negotiate “The West Wing” without a poverty plea from NBC.

NBC, though, may still enter the “West Wing” negotiations with the notion that they’ve already backed up the Brinks truck to Warner Bros.’ coffers once this season, and don’t want to do it again.

The Peacock will find itself back at the bargaining table next year to renew “Frasier.” NBC struck a $374 million, three-year deal with Paramount in 2001 to keep the Kelsey Grammer laffer on the air through May 2004.

If the “Friends” finally, officially, call it quits next season, that puts more pressure on NBC to make a sweet deal with Paramount to keep “Frasier” in place. After all, losing “Friends” would be tough — but losing “Friends” and “Frasier” in one season would have serious implications.

The renewal also denies Peacock rivals such as ABC or CBS — which has become a player on Thursday nights thanks to “Survivor” and “CSI” — more breathing room on the night next season.

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