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It’s hands-on producers who revived `Friends’

Feb 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Everyone’s favorite “Friends” are leading a charmed life.
In TV land, the NBC show has been revitalized with a new energy feeding off the story line of Rachel’s pregnancy. In real life, negotiations for a final season to wrap up the series breezed by with nary a hitch.
More than anything, Hollywood insiders credit “Friends”’ renaissance to the fact that core producers at Bright/Kauffman/Crane have remained actively involved in the show every year dating back to its launch in fall 1994.
“The beauty of the show is that [Kevin] Bright, [Marta] Kauffman and [David] Crane have never left it to other show runners,” said Nancy Josephson, co-president of International Creative Management, whose Hollywood agency represents the “Friends” producing troika and other writer-producers on the show. “Often [on] a hit show, somewhere in season three or four is where the majors leave it and turn keys over to other producers.”
Ms. Josephson also noted that at least four other executive producers-Andrew Reich, Scott Silveri, Shana Goldberg-Meehan and Ted Cohen-have been with “Friends” for almost five seasons. In large part, she said the second rank of producers have filled in for what has been the “natural rotation” of writer-producers who move on to develop their own comedy series (such as Seth Kurland, Alexa Junge, Greg Malins and Adam Chase).
“By having those seven core producers and to have that kind of continuity is extraordinary for a show going into its ninth season,” Ms. Josephson added.
While many have attributed “Friends”’ turnaround to viewers’ appetite for “comfort food” after 9/11, others think it’s much simpler than that: It’s the quality storytelling and writing.
The producer-writers have taken stabs at injecting more dramatic story elements, such as last season’s cliffhanger story line regarding who was the father of Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) yet-to-be-born baby. To add another twist this season, the designated offbeat sidekick Joey (Matt LeBlanc) expresses newfound affection for Rachel, pitting him in potential conflict with Ross (David Schwimmer)-the father-to-be.
“I don’t really think 9/11 was a big factor in `Friends”’ ratings growth,” said Ted Frank, senior VP of current series for NBC Entertainment. “The success of the show has been [its] very strong storytelling and the terrific hook the producers and writers took with Rachel’s pregnancy for the end of last season and seeing how it would play out on a week-by-week basis this season.”
“What is interesting with Matt [is] there is such heart to his character, and we just thought it was time for him to wear his heart on his sleeve and put it on the line,” Mr. Crane said in an earlier interview for Electronic Media’s 2001-02 Winter Critics Poll, where “Friends” jumped up 14 rankings to being voted the second-best comedy on TV this season.
“I do think people are looking for a certain amount of laughs, and they are emotionally invested in the characters. There are still some other returning comedies that are not doing as well, but it is the way NBC is promoting the show to where they are tapping into people’s needs to feel comfortable in reconnecting with the characters.”
In fact, Mr. Frank and other NBC programmers credit NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker with giving the show the attention it has always deserved. Barely a month into his tenure as NBC’s top programmer, Mr. Zucker challenged “Friends”’ new time-period competition-CBS’s “Survivor: The Australian Outback”-head on by creating unique promotional stunts, such as “super-sized” 40-minute “Friends” and “Will & Grace” episodes.” He also inserted a 20-minute “best of `Friends”’ highlights reel after a super-sized episode during the February 2001 sweeps.
After riding on such a high this season, NBC got a much needed gift from the six cast members-Ms. Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, Lisa Kudrow, Mr. LeBlanc, Mr. Schwimmer and Matthew Perry-who decided to come back for a final season.
Even the negotiations between producer/distributor Warner Bros. Television and NBC-which had been somewhat contentious and down to the wire just two years ago-went smoothly, with a deal to pay each cast member $1 million-plus per episode closed in less than two weeks.
“To see the negotiations go as quickly and smoothly speaks to how important the cast felt about the show coming back for a final send-off that gives proper closure to their characters,” said Sandy Wernick, a senior executive VP of the management firm Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, which represents Ms. Aniston and Ms. Cox Arquette. “Given the continued creative strength of the show, regardless of what people think of the affect of Sept. 11, Bright/Kauffman/Crane has had `Friends’ riding on such a sustained creative crescendo, which had the cast more than eager to tie up the show for its finale next season.”
Going back to before the start of the 2000-01 season, “Friends”’ three executive producers and creators had been locked up in their own three-year renewal deals to stay on the series through the 2002-03 season.
Despite the prospect of the cast members’ salaries pushing NBC’s license fees on “Friends” to around $6.5 million to $7 million per episode for next season (or up to $168 million for 24 episodes), the producing and writing staff’s salaries had been fixed into place three years ago. Securing their services that far in advance helped to minimize any potential front-end production deficits NBC and Warner Bros. would have to carry into the show’s final years.
“In these negotiations, which were much less intense than for seasons seven and eight, it was again up to the cast if they wanted the show to continue,” said Sam Fischer, an attorney from Hollywood entertainment firm Ziffren Brittenham Branca & Fischer, which represents Bright/Kauffman/Crane and other “Friends” producers. “The producers were thrilled to continue, obviously, but it was up to the cast to set their terms, which were all very reasonable from the get-go.”
Outside of the salary increases, Mr. Fischer and other sources said the talks dealt with somewhat more minor “workplace issues,” such as the shooting schedules accommodating the casts’ outside film commitments. However, another source close to the talks said NBC officials had briefly “postured” that the network would be in a “deficit situation” if each of the cast members had sought the $1.6 million per episode Kelsey Grammer successfully extracted last year as the lead star of “Frasier.”
“There were some minor financial considerations, but even those were quickly resolved, because the cast had readily expressed their willingness to be on the same page with the producers to ensure a final season,” said a Hollywood agency source.