''Friends'' to return for one more season, with raise. Plus, news about Carson Daly, Rosie O'Donnell, Angela Bassett, Destiny's Child, Alejandro Sanz, Alan Jackson, U2, and others
Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, ...

TUBE TALK At last, you and millions of fellow fans (and NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker) can sleep peacefully, as the six stars of ”Friends” have ended months of speculation and agreed to return for a ninth season, in return for a 33 percent pay raise. According to Variety and the Wall Street Journal, each Friend’s per-episode take will rise from $750,000 to just above $1 million. That’ll boost the Warner Bros.-produced half hour’s annual cost to more than $150 million, and only part of that will be covered by the license fee that NBC pays for each show, which the Journal reports will rise from $5.5 million to just over $6 million. Still, the show remains the most popular series in prime time and is expected to generate $1 billion in syndication revenue for Warner Bros. and surpass ”Seinfeld” as the most lucrative sitcom in history. ”We are enormously pleased and excited to be returning for a ninth season,” the actors said in a joint statement. ”We could not ignore the outpouring of public support for the show.”

Still, the ninth season is expected to be the series’ last. ”Since we all had the same objective, this was the easiest deal we have ever made,” Zucker told the Associated Press. ”Everyone wanted it to work out, because everyone wanted to be able to send the series out appropriately, and in style.” Series creators Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane said they would spend the year tying up loose plot ends in order to ”send our characters off into the world.”

Guess that means those rumors that this season would end with Rachel dying in childbirth and handing the tot over to Monica and Chandler to raise were premature. That was one possible storyline being considered for the season finale, according to the tabloid The Star; others had Rachel marrying Ross or Joey. ”When I asked about the story line, everyone [among the producers] looked at me like I was crazy,” series spokesman Phil Gonzalez told AP. ”It’s definitely not true.” But Star editor-in-chief Tony Frost insisted that well-placed sources had told his paper that such storylines had been under consideration. ”I suppose now that the Star has let the cat out of the bag, the writers will have to put their thinking caps back on,” he told AP. Indeed, until yesterday, the writers didn’t know if they’d be writing a season finale or a series finale, so just about anything could have happened to the characters. Now, at least, they know they’re not writing a funeral….

Maybe NBC should change the title of its late-late-night talk show to ”Second-to-Last Call with Carson Daly.” Starting March 4, you’ll be able to see the 1:35 a.m. show one more time as a rerun the following evening on E!, at 6 p.m. NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa said that the dinnertime reruns should help hook viewers on the night-owl show. ”If I told somebody on the street they have to see something at 1:30, it might help to convince them to do it if they could get hooked by sampling it at a different time of day. It’s all about habit-forming,” he told Variety. It was the potential side deal to resell the show, however, that caused Daly to hold off signing the contract with NBC until the very last minute, delaying last month’s much-touted premiere of the show by one day and possibly costing Sassa his job (he’s leaving in June). At least Sassa found a buyer for ”Last Call,” since he said NBC’s sister news networks, CNBC and MSNBC, didn’t have a place for the entertainment-oriented show.

COVER TO COVER In what may be the least surprising announcement since Ellen DeGeneres told Time magazine, ”Yep, I’m gay” five years ago, Rosie O’Donnell is expected to out herself in her memoir ”Find Me,” due out in April from Warner Books. ”The book certainly does address her sexuality,” Warner spokesman Jimmy Franco told USA Today, ”but it’s a very small role in what the book is really about.” O’Donnell, who will hand over the reins of her daytime talk show to Caroline Rhea once her contract ends in late May, has been hinting about her sexual orientation for some time. She dedicated her Daytime Emmy win last year to gal pal Kelli Carpenter, saying in her acceptance speech, ”This is for Kelli. Love you.” She also appeared in a recent high-profile guest spot on ”Will & Grace” as the mother of Jack’s son, who outs herself to Jack but says she’ll tell the boy when she’s ready. Of the book, O’Donnell recently said to Mediaweek magazine, ”It’s a little heavier than people would expect, I think,” but did not elaborate. She did not deny a report, published a couple weeks ago in the New York Daily News, that ”Find Me” would discuss ”her relationships with women and having a girl breaking her heart in college.”

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