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'Friends' Forever?

NBC plays let’s-make-a-deal with the Central Perk six.

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Let’s flash back: it’s May 2000, and negotiations to re-sign Friends for two more seasons have turned more unsightly than, well, Ugly Naked Guy. The six comely sitcom stars have NBC over a barrel: Pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars more to each per episode or suffer the end of Must See TV as you know it. Emotions are high, lines in the sand are drawn, but in the end David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox Arquette, Jennifer Aniston, and Lisa Kudrow do indeed re-up, for a generous $750,000 per episode.

Cut to February 2002: Contracts are up again, and again the Friends are asking for a hefty pay raise for a ninth season. The big difference: No one’s making a mopey Ross face inside a tense conference room. In fact, barring any last-minute flashes of greed (by the actors) or stinginess (by NBC), all parties are optimistic that Friends will return with each actor making around $1 million per episode. ”So far it’s been very cordial—it has not been adversarial,” says a Peacock insider. ”It’s too much money [to leave on the table],” says a source close to the cast. ”It wouldn’t be sensible to not come to terms. This is not brain surgery.”

No-brainer jokes aside, not all the Friends are equally gung ho about re-signing. According to sources on the show, Schwimmer and Kudrow (both of whom expressed reservations about returning during the ’96 and 2000 contract talks) may again be the ones with slightly chilly feet. In fact, one insider says writers were so worried about Kudrow, who’s largely been sidelined during the Joey-falls-for-pregnant-Rachel plot, they contemplated ways to boost her story arcs to keep her happy. Ultimately, says the source, they decided to ”do the best show possible without trying to please everybody.”

Still, reports from the actors’ camp are generally upbeat: One on-set source says the typically blase sextet has been seen at the table-reads each Friday poring over the revitalized Nielsens (the show is enjoying its largest audiences — an average 24.5 million — in five years). But Schwimmer and Kudrow may not have the last word. On a Jan. 30 Tonight Show visit, LeBlanc told Jay Leno that when it comes to the cast’s all-for-one, one-for-all credo, ”majority rules on just about everything, from where we go to lunch to whether we’re coming back. So if you’re in the minority, you’re screwed. You say, ‘So I guess I have to go back.’ We’re talking about it now and it will probably all work out.”

From the suits’ point of view, the only head-scratcher left is how NBC and Warner Bros. (which produces Friends) will amass all that cash for the cast’s salaries. Currently, Warner Bros. (a division of EW parent AOL Time Warner) bears the brunt of the cost, which it covers by charging NBC roughly $5.5 million per episode. But to meet the actors’ demands this time, Warner wants at least enough to break even—but more than the net may want to pay. ”It’s mind-boggling,” says a source close to the talks, referring to the $1 billion Warner will make off Friends in syndication. ”[Warner Bros.] doesn’t feel like they need another year of Friends. They have a lot of money. There’s a feeling NBC needs it more than them.”