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Last-Minute Deal Locks in 'Friends' for Fall

Television * NBC agrees to hike stars' fees so that it can retain the comedy as lead-in for revamped Thursday lineup.

May 15, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a tense weekend of negotiations that no doubt had NBC wondering with "Friends" like these who needs enemies, the network has secured a two-year extension of television's top-rated comedy that will pay the six cast members roughly $44 million each.

NBC and Warner Bros. Television, the studio that produces "Friends," will share that price tag, which becomes one of the most expensive for a series in television history.

Each of the stars will receive $750,000 per episode (24 are produced in a season) as well as advances against profits from the sale of the show into syndication, bringing the total value to nearly $920,000 per installment. The base salary alone, then, will balloon to $4.5 million for each half-hour before a single frame is shot.

The deal was concluded less than 36 hours before NBC was scheduled to make this morning's announcement of next season's prime-time lineup in New York. The actors' salaries exceed the $600,000 paid "Seinfeld's" supporting cast in that show's last season but fall short of the $1-million mark awarded Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen and the stars of "Mad About You" in their final years. According to one source, however, the actors' take could increase to as much as $50 million apiece, depending on how well "Friends" continues to do in syndication.

With "Friends" locked in as its lead-off show on Thursday nights, NBC can proceed with a revised schedule featuring seven new series, shipping "Frasier" back to Tuesday nights and moving "Will & Grace" and "Just Shoot Me" to Thursdays, hoping to inject some new blood into the "Must-See TV" franchise.

Those plans, tentatively set last week, were held up as the "Friends" negotiations dragged on. At one point Saturday, in fact, NBC put together an on-air promo billing this Thursday's one-hour episode as the "series finale." Rumors even briefly swirled that the actors had fired their representatives, who were urging them to accept the deal.

"It was volatile," said one source near the negotiations.

Ultimately, however, all three parties had an interest in the show continuing. For the network, which has already slipped behind ABC this season thanks to "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," losing "Friends" would have been a devastating blow. Warner Bros., meanwhile, has made hundreds of millions of dollars selling the program into syndication and will now have at least 48 more new episodes to keep feeding that pipeline.

As for the cast members, who have experienced varying degrees of success in their film careers but have been associated with few box-office hits, they will garner the sort of annual payday available in features only to stars such as Mel Gibson, Jim Carrey and Julia Roberts.

NBC's Reshuffling Poses a Big Risk

NBC needs "Friends" to maintain its strength on Thursdays, even as the network takes an enormous risk Tuesdays by surrounding "Frasier"--heading into its eighth season--with three new comedies, albeit programs featuring some familiar faces.

Those new sitcoms feature "Seinfeld" alumnus Michael Richards as a bumbling detective, former "In Living Color" regular David Alan Grier playing a Secret Service agent protecting a first lady (Delta Burke) and her kids in "D.A.G.," and "Married . . . With Children's" Katey Sagal as a divorced mom in "Tucker," which views the aftermath of the split-up through the eyes of her 15-year-old son.

"Wings' " Steven Weber also will land at the network--in the coveted slot after "Friends"--in an untitled show whose premise is still being revised. Weber's "Wings" co-star, Tim Daly, is expected to be back in the fall as well, starring in a CBS remake of the 1960s drama "The Fugitive."

NBC's new dramas are "Titans," a Beverly Hills-set soap opera designed to pick up the mantle abandoned by Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210"; "Ed," a wry "Northern Exposure"-esque series about a newly divorced lawyer who moves from New York back to the kooky small town where he grew up; and "Deadline," from "Law & Order" producer Dick Wolf, featuring Oliver Platt as an investigative journalist.

"Ed" possesses notable auspices, coming from Rob Burnett--executive producer of CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman"--and produced in conjunction with Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants. In fact, the series was initially developed as a half-hour sitcom for CBS. While Letterman has often jabbed at NBC on air, few of the executives who chose Jay Leno over him as host of "The Tonight Show" are still at the network.

NBC will significantly alter the Richards project and perhaps Weber's show as well. Insiders say the sight-unseen commitment to Richards was so expensive it influenced NBC's decision to try salvaging the show as opposed to simply ordering another series.

That said, one notable absentee from NBC's fall roster is "Semper Fi," a high-profile military drama about the Marines produced by Steven Spielberg. Sources say the network was less than impressed with the show but will order it as a midseason series because of Spielberg's involvement.

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