NBC Still Has Friends

NBC got into the holiday gift-giving spirit just in time for Christmas. It bought itself the most expensive entertainment series on network TV—a 10th season of Friends, at $10 million an episode.

NBC and Friends
distributor Warner Bros. Television reached an agreement over the weekend before Christmas that renews the show on the network for the 2003-04 season.

With Friends
on board for another season, NBC has the two linchpins of its Thursday-night "must see" schedule locked in for the 2003-04 season. The network earlier secured a two-year renewal for ER
through next season as well.

The last time NBC hung onto a Thursday hit for 11 seasons was with Cheers, the network's Thursday anchor show through most of the 1980s and early '90s. Frasier
will be next. Once part of the Thursday lineup but now airing on Tuesdays, the Cheers
spin-off sees its 10th season, but already renewed for 2003-04. Seinfeld, which succeeded Cheers
as the Thursday anchor comedy, lasted eight years on NBC from 1990 to 1998.

The Friends
renewal agreement gives NBC another year to try to figure out how to maintain its strength on Thursday nights post Friends
and ER. Industry watchers say the network has its work cut out for it. "Let's put it this way: It's not Scrubs
and it's not Good Morning Miami" that will sustain current viewing levels when Friends
departs, says one industry analyst.

For NBC, the wallet has to stay open still. It also needs to deal with Warner Bros. for a renewal of The West Wing, the hit series that is at the end of its contract year, too, after this season.

There will be fewer episodes next season—18 instead of the usual 22. Each of the stars will continue to receive $1 million per episode.

NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker 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% higher than the $7 million NBC is said to be paying this season.

Much of the reason for the big jump in cost is that NBC is effectively not only paying Warner Bros. the cost of the season, but also forking over the profit the studio might expect to make from syndication from the comedy.

The syndication deals have a nine-season cap on the number of episodes stations are committed to. So there is no 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 this season's end , plus 18 next season.

It remains unclear what kind of back-end use 10th-season episodes will get. In the first off-network syndication cycle, Warner Bros. generated about $4 million an episode in license fees. The company has somewhat quietly sold the second off-network cycle, which starts fall 2004, for roughly 60% of what the first cycle generated, or $2.4 million an episode.

Superstation WTBS bought a cable package that started in 2001 priced at a reported $1 million per episode.

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, though Raymond
is slightly ahead, with some markets still to report.

The ratings remain solid on the network as well. Through the first 12 weeks of the season, the show was top-ranked among adults 18-49 with an average 12.5/32, down 1% 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% from a year ago.

This season, NBC has the highest priced night of TV on the networks, with the price of a 30-second unit in Friends
estimated at about $450,000, while a spot in ER
goes for about $440,000.

But with record-breaking license fees for both shows, NBC's Thursday lineup is no longer the most profitable. Media executives say that CBS can rightfully lay claim to a more profitable Thursday lineup, with the fairly inexpensive but highly rated Survivor
and CSI
, whose license fee hasn't yet hit the stratosphere. But those shows are commanding must-see ad rates of more than $400,000 and almost $300,000, respectively, sources confirm.