Profits are NBC’s best ‘Friends’

Emmy wins may bring about one more season

Thursday night, some 30 million “Friends” fans will find out what happens in the Ross/Rachel/Joey love triangle — and the ratings will no doubt be huge.

For NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker and Warner Bros. TV topper Peter Roth, however, a much bigger cliffhanger involving the Emmy-winning laffer has yet to be resolved.

The official line is that Thurday night’s ninth season opener marks the beginning of the end for “Friends,” and that the show will call it quits in May. NBC’s on-air promos warn fans of the show to “cherish every episode” — the not-so-subtle message being, this is it, folks: Watch us while you can.

But Hollywood refuses to let “Friends” die.

“It’s going to come back,” one major network topper insisted. “When push comes to shove, there’s going to be too much money involved for everybody to walk away now.

“NBC’s going to milk this being the final season for all it’s worth, and lo and behold, it will be renewed for another year.”

Another small-screen suit believes the show’s Sunday Emmy win only improved the odds that “Friends” will live on.

“The Emmy validates what they’re doing,” he said. “The cast all realizes what a great gig this is. They work 3½ days a week, they’re working with their best friends, and they’re making an ungodly amount of money. As long as the stories are rich and funny, why not come back?”

A top talent rep has even worked out an exact scenario for how the show might return should one or two of its stars simply refuse to sign up for another season.

“It’ll come back either with Jennifer Aniston in all the episodes or just six or eight episodes,” the insider said. “And if she doesn’t come back for a full season, they’ll get a big feature actress like Reese Witherspoon and pay her $10 million to do six episodes.”

Nothing’s really changed

To be sure, there’s not a shred of solid proof to suggest that the show’s cast and producers are being dishonest when they call this the last year for the show. Nothing’s technically changed since the announcement last February that producers wanted to have “a farewell season devoted to concluding the series.”

WBTV’s PR arm is certainly treating this season as the end, lining up goodbye interviews and magazine covers. And both Zucker and Roth refuse to even broach the subject of another season, even off the record.

But in a town that thrives on hints and whispers, observers have pounced on any possible inkling that the “Friends” gang may be willing to reconsider.

Shortly after winning the comedy thesp Emmy Sunday, Jennifer Aniston was noncommittal when asked if this was the end. “Who knows?” she said.

And last month, Lisa Kudrow stirred up a small media tsunami when she told cabler Oxygen that she wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye.

“I hope not,” Kudrow said when asked if season nine would be the show’s last. “You look around and you see that a lot of reasons shows finish is (that) the ratings are really bad. We were No. 1 for the first time ever in our eighth season.”

Zucker factor

Then there’s the Zucker Factor.

The Peacock prexy is nothing if not tenacious; he also loves a challenge. What’s more, with the success of NBC’s three new fall comedies still a question mark — despite the net’s professed encouragement over the bows of “Hidden Hills” and “In-Laws” — Zucker would love to have another year of the nation’s most-watched show.

“Jeff’s very good at this sort of thing,” one rival said. “He’s going to figure out a way to do it.”

For the past few months, Zucker has been careful to refer to the upcoming season as the show’s “likely” last. In July, he said he “wouldn’t 100% put nails in the coffin yet.”

Driving all of the doubt about the show’s future is Hollywood’s undying belief in the supremacy of the almighty dollar.

With so many decisions here based on money, it’s impossible for many to believe that the six cast members and the show’s producers would walk away from tens of millions each for another year’s work. It would be leaving money on the table — a mortal sin in showbiz.

Willing to pay more

And it seems clear that NBC would be willing to shell out even more — though perhaps not much more — than the show’s current $6.5 million per episode license fee. That’s because even at a per episode deficit, skein has tons of tangential value to the net.

“It’s the most critical show to the NBC schedule,” one industry vet said. “It’s gives them the promotional base to launch everything else. You just can’t look at what the ad revenue is vs. the license fee.”

What’s more, because every episode of “Friends” represents millions in pure profit for Warner Bros. Television, NBC has plenty of flexibility in how it could structure a new deal for the show.

Shortened season?

Say most of the cast simply refuses to do another full, 24-episode season of the show. Zucker could easily counter by offering to reduce the show’s order to 13 episodes — a la HBO’s “The Sopranos” or FX’s “The Shield” — which could air from February though May 2004.

Concerns about creative issues might be allayed, since writers wouldn’t be as stressed in coming up with plots. And cast members would have more time to pursue feature projects.

It’s a longshot, of course — as is any type of 10th season of “Friends,” in the eyes of some observers.

For many TV types, however, the “Friends” cliffhanger is really no cliffhanger at all.

“It’s coming back,” said one top exec. “It’s too big not to come back.”

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