NEW YORK — For 10 years, viewers have laughed at the foibles of six New York City "Friends." NBC and producer Warner Bros. have laughed too -- all the way to the bank.
Now comes the drama. Viewers might miss Ross and Rachel, but the show's end Thursday will leave an even bigger void in the behind-the-scenes television world, where a hit sitcom like "Friends" can generate a multibillion-dollar business and make or break a network, and the executives who run them.
But not everyone at NBC is crying big tears. "Friends" in its last season cost $10 million an episode -- far more than the $500,000 to $750,000 most networks pay for sitcoms. So as that show concludes, NBC's fancy is turning in a new direction.
And it's toward Donald Trump and his unexpected hit reality show, "The Apprentice," which is now the centerpiece of NBC's Thursday lineup, along with "ER."
Is "The Apprentice" just a cheap, short-term fling after a long, expensive marriage? It's too soon to tell. But at a time when all of the economics of television are coming under intense scrutiny, there are at least some half-smiles in Burbank at the thought of having a Thursday night hit that's less than one-tenth the cost of the exiting show.
While "The Apprentice" may not generate quite the same $453,000 per ad spot of "Friends," it nonetheless has higher profit margins. And NBC will have 32 hours of "The Apprentice" next year, compared with just nine hours (18 half-hours) of "Friends," as NBC Entertainment, News and Cable Group President Jeff Zucker has been saying to anyone who'll listen.
Of course, even in the new network world of fast-changing viewer appetites for next-hit reality, and for dramas such as "Law & Order" and "CSI" that can be spun into multiple hours throughout the week, NBC won't easily forget the well over $1 billion in ad revenue that "Friends" generated throughout its long run.
And there's certainly no celebrating at Warner Bros., the studio that produced the show. Once the show became a hit and the studio was able to boost the fee it charged NBC for it, "Friends" became a cash cow that is still producing. With rerun rights for the year 2011 currently being offered for sale to local TV stations, the studio will continue to reap financial rewards for years to come.
Not only does the show air nightly on cable and local stations, the studio also has several more years' worth of episodes to release on DVD. Between local station, cable and international DVD sales, the studio's projected gross take from the sitcom, so far, is about $4 billion, according to some educated guesses, which is not a bad legacy for a long-term relationship, even if it is over.
As for the six core cast members -- Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer -- it has certainly been a lucrative run. Although they were paid the same as most unknowns cast in sitcoms during the show's first few years, they've each made $1 million per episode for the last couple of seasons.
NBC declined to estimate how much financial value it derived from "Friends." At its peak in 2000-2001, the show was earning an average of $540,000 per 30-second commercial (second to "ER" at $620,000), according to Advertising Age; this year, it is still bringing about $473,500, according to the trade publication's calculations, with ads for Thursday's finale at $2 million each, putting it in reach of what Super Bowl ads cost. Not for a 10-year-old show. Even when the network was losing money on the show itself, however, the shows that aired following "Friends" got higher ad rates than they might have on their own.
"You can't pay too much for a hit show, although networks don't like to tell that to producers," said Tim Brooks, co-author of "The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows." At one point, " 'Little House on the Prairie,' " he said, "paid for the entire prime time NBC schedule, so one show can make a tremendous difference."
Although "Friends" was often the top-rated show of the week, it wasn't just the ratings that gave it such sway with advertisers.
Chris Geraci, director of national TV buying at ad firm Omnicom Group's OMD unit, said the show turned Thursday night into a "marketing phenomenon" because of the way its audience of sophisticated young adults dovetailed precisely with the pre-weekend needs of movie studios and some retailers. "I'm not a culturist, but there's a certain connection that it has to people's aspirations, they see themselves in this format and that lifestyle, and it's lightning in a bottle, so to speak," he said, adding that "It's only happened a few times," with other examples being "Seinfeld" and "Mary Tyler Moore."