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''Friends'' takes off

The David Schwimmer show is only in its second season, but is already scheduled through the 1998 season

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Maybe Bette Midler was wrong. You don’t gotta have Friends. Or at least not so much of them. After airing the special one-hour post-Super Bowl episode — with its multimillion-dollar Diet Coke tie-in — and taping a weeklong Friends fest for Today, NBC has decided there’s been enough palling around. ”There is the possibility of the show being overexposed,” says NBC’s entertainment president, Warren Littlefield, who adds that the cast — Courteney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer — ”won’t be doing as much press. We’ll be seeing less.”

Littlefield isn’t simply being merciful. The clampdown on exposure comes just as the show’s producer, Warner Bros., is putting the sitcom, now in its second season, on the fall ’98 syndication block — a year earlier than anyone expected. If it remains white-hot, Friends will likely fetch $4.5 million per episode, joining The Cosby Show as the most expensive show in syndication history.

Not everyone thinks this is a great idea: TV insiders say snapping up Friends repeats this early in its run could backfire on the stations. If a Friends backlash erupts or a cast member leaves because of a Caruso complex (all six have movies currently in the works), reruns would become as appealing as the Ugly Naked Guy. A Warner Bros. exec dismisses such notions. ”[Friends] is a unique property,” says Scott Carlin, executive vice president of Warner domestic television distribution, who has faith that the frenzy will continue. ”It all comes down to great writing in the same way that M*A*S*H did and Seinfeld did. But only time will tell.”