"This show started jumping sharks three at a time -- they had the baby, they had the marriage," said Robert Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. And yet, Thompson notes, "Friends" "is still a pretty competent comedy.
"You compare it to where 'Murphy Brown' was in its baroque declining years. They're still able to tell a pretty amusing story that's still funnier than most comedies on network television."
"The audience has made a tremendous bond with those characters," Littlefield said. At the same time, however, "the greatest difficulty in following a 'Friends' is that [the new show will be] compared to 'Friends.' If you followed 'Friends' with Season One of 'Seinfeld,' it wouldn't look as good as 'Seinfeld' in its heyday."
During Littlefield's tenure at NBC, "Cheers" was exiting the stage. Fortunately for him, the network had two comedies about to bloom: "Frasier" and "Seinfeld."
"The tremendous concern when 'Cheers' went away was, do we have the players, do we have the goods to hold on to a signature night?" As it turned out, they had "Seinfeld," then in its first full season on the air after dying a thousand deaths in network meetings and among test audiences.
This season, NBC has been hard-selling "Scrubs" as a "Friends" heir apparent, airing it Thursday nights at 8:30, where it loses an average 30% of the "Friends" audience. The show, in its second season, has the bells and whistles of a sitcom that might speak to the same 18-to-49-year-old viewers who also watch "Friends"; young doctors coming of age at a hospital, starring a sensitive cute guy with mussed hair in a show that blends hyper-reality with the requisite amount of pop culture referencing.
Can "Scrubs" lead off Thursday night for NBC in 2004? One thing is for certain: The other networks would love to see them try.
"Ultimately they don't need the next 'Friends,' " Carroll said of NBC, "they need the next great comedy. A reason for viewers to watch. They need to have it in place for a while, for people to become accustomed to the show. That was the intention with 'Scrubs.' "
Meanwhile, during the November sweeps, a wedding on "Will & Grace" carried the show to its second-largest audience ever, as Grace, played by Debra Messing, got married to a character played by Harry Connick Jr.
Once seen as daring, the show about the relationship between an openly gay man and a heterosexual woman could be the most viable option NBC has for Thursday nights at 8, 7 Central.
"The real question now is, where is the critical development of that show going to be?" Carroll said. "Now that they've married her off, where is the show's focus?"
And NBC's focus? To be sure, competition is only growing stiffer, with cable channels continuing to eat into the broadcast networks' hold on viewers. For NBC, the challenge is to keep being NBC. With an extra year to keep the "Must See" bloodline going, the task is slightly less urgent. But as Thompson said: "It's almost as though NBC has gotta keep the parent alive until one of the kids is able to support the rest of the family."