More Friends next season


The question most asked in Hollywood TV circles this season has been answered
-- Friends will come back for at least one more season. NBC and Warner
Bros. inked a renewal deal over the weekend that renews the show on the network
for the 2003-04 season.

A year ago, taking cues from the cast and producers, just about everyone
believed that the current season would the last for the hit NBC Thursday night
show. Everyone but NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker, who has held out
hope all year long that he could seal an extension for at least one more year.
He finally did it, albeit with a pretty hefty price tag, which is estimated to
be close to $10 million an episode, or more than 40 percent higher than the $7
million NBC is paying this season.

Much of the reason for the big jump in cost is that NBC is effectively paying
Warner Bros. the profit on the episodes for next season, which will be the
show's tenth. The syndication deals have a nine-season cap on the number of
episodes that stations are committed to. Thus, there is less incentive for
Warner Bros. to produce another season without a substantial hike in the license
fee to NBC, which the network agreed to.

There will be close to 220 Friends episodes in the can by the end of this
season, plus another 18 for next season. For now, it remains unclear what kind
of back-end use the episodes from the tenth season will get.

For the first off-network cycle, Warner Bros. generated about $4 million an
episode in syndication license fees. The company has somewhat quietly sold the
second off-network cycle, which starts in the fall of 2004, for roughly 60
percent of what the first cycle generated, according to sources familiar with
the situation. In addition, Superstation WTBS bought a cable package that
started in 2001.

Bill Carroll, vice president, programming, Katz Media Group says the show's
ratings are still solid in syndication -- averaging about a 4.4/8 (household) in
the 119 Nielsen books that are in so far for November. That puts it neck and
neck with Everybody Loves Raymond for the top spot, although
Raymond is slightly ahead, with some markets still to be reported. Last
November, Friends in syndication averaged a 4.8/9 in the Nielsen books,
according to Katz's analysis.

And the ratings remain solid on the network as well. Through the first 12
weeks of the season, the show was top-ranked among adults 18 through 49 with an
average 12.5/32, down 1 percent from a year ago. On a total viewer basis, the
show is second this season with an average 25.9 million viewers each week, also
down just 1 percent from a year ago.

There will be fewer episodes next season -- 18 instead of the usual 22. The
cast is getting the same $1 million per episode they're getting this