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Lowe out; Friends still in?

NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker says Rob Lowe's departure from West Wing
late next season is a "mutual" decision.

In an interview with BROADCASTING & CABLE last week, Zucker emphasized that Lowe will continue on the show "until February, for 16 of the 22 episodes" being produced. But after that, he said, "there is mutual agreement [between Warner Bros. and Lowe] that he is moving on."

John Wells Productions and Warner Bros. Television confirmed an original report in Variety
of Lowe's impending departure, which the paper (which is co-owned with B&C) ascribed to a salary dispute. "We regretfully confirm that Rob Lowe will amicably depart The West Wing
in March after completing 16 episodes," the statement said. "We appreciate his numerous contributions to the success of the series and wish him all the best in his future endeavors."

Observed Zucker, "The West Wing
is a true ensemble drama, and we are fortunate to have fine actors that will still be at the White House." If past is prologue, Zucker is right in assuming that the strong cast can carry the show. The closest parallel is also an NBC/Warner Bros. show: ER
has seen the defection of numerous marquee actors (George Clooney, Sherry Stringfield, William H. Macy, Julianna Margulies) while continuing as one of the net's top draws.

The Lowe story was only one of several that competed for attention at the TV Critics Association tour in Pasadena last week.

Also making the TV columns of the hometown papers was the suggestion that the door to another season of Friends
might be open. Zucker suggested that the sitcom might continue, despite previous word that its next and ninth season would be its last. "I don't want to ever believe that it's absolutely going to be the end," he said. "I think it's most likely the final season, but I wouldn't 100% rule out [its continuing]."

The show's producers, on a later panel, were less optimistic. "We're certainly approaching this as if this is the last season and sort of planning our stories accordingly," executive producer David Crane told a packed house. Added executive producer Kevin Bright, "If this was not going to be the last season, we would have to know that, like, now because everything is planning towards that, and so it's not something that can be a last-minute decision." If that sounded like the door closing again, co-creator Marta Kauffman wouldn't let it shut: "[It's] not that we couldn't come up with another season if that were in front of us, but it does feel a bit like things are coming full circle; our characters are growing up, it may be time. Also, we don't want to overstay our welcome."

Elsewhere at the tour, Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow told reporters that the network had succeeded in reducing license fees for new shows coming on the air next season by an average 5%-7% compared with last season. "It is one of the great challenges in our industry" to get more bang out of each production buck, Grushow said. "It doesn't seem to be enough for most of us, the entire Hollywood creative community, to see the storm clouds forming. I fear that not only is everybody going to have to get drenched, but probably struck by lightning before significant progress is made on that front. But we are pushing back, and we do see ourselves making some progress."

As an example, he cited upcoming Fox midseason Septuplets, which "will cost considerably less than just about any drama I've seen come along at Fox in a long time."