‘Desperate Networks:’ ‘Friends’ To The End, Part IV

Bob Wright, aware of the history, knew NBC simply could notafford a collapse on Thursday, the night it had used to rewrite theeconomics of the television business. The breakout of Cosby, HillStreet Blues, and a string of other NBC hits had been timed fortuitouslyto coincide with a surge of demand from advertisers to buytime on Thursdays.

The buying frenzy was driven initially by the movie studios, all ofwhich came to the same conclusion: Heavy television advertising onThursday was critical to pumping up the box office. Studio filmsregularly opened on Fridays, and more and more they depended onhuge opening weekends.

Other advertisers quickly realized the value of Thursday night aswell. With young viewers steadily abandoning television on Fridayand Saturday nights, Thursday became the last time to reach them.So fast-food companies wanted in. Soda-pop makers wanted to reinforcetheir brand before weekend leisure activities. Car dealersknew they sold most vehicles on the weekends.

NBC?s Thursday shows appealed especially to young, urbanviewers with good incomes. This was an idyllic match for ad buyers.NBC had millions of these highly desirable customers committed toturning up on Thursday night, so it began charging advertisers apremium to lock up some of its scarce commercial space. Startingin the early 1990s, more than 40 percent of NBC?s total revenueswere pouring in from Thursday-night commercials.

All those facts and figures were in Bob Wright?s mind when hegave Jeff Zucker the approval to offer Warner Brothers $10 million anepisode for one last injection of Friends. Wright, who had become thepremier business executive in television over his long tenure supervisingNBC, was no slouch in terms of programming savvy. He did nothave to be told that NBC currently had nothing on its schedule thatcould pass for a pale shadow of Seinfeld. Nothing on any other nightwas going to ride to the rescue on Thursday night this time.

Zucker and Graboff flew back to L.A. on a morning in late October.They had a meeting set for that afternoon with Peter Roth andBruce Rosenblum of Warner Brothers, along with the Friends creativeteam of Marta Kauffman, David Crane, and Kevin Bright, andtheir agent, Nancy Josephson of ICM.

When the two NBC executives landed, they called the Warnerexecutives and told them they wanted to come to the lot a half hourearly and meet with them, along with Josephson. Zucker said he had?something important to discuss? and he didn?t want to do it in frontof the show?s creative team.

In the Warner offices, Roth and Rosenblum looked at each otherand had little trouble guessing that this had to be about a bid tokeep Friends. But what could NBC do? Roth wondered. He concludedthat the only way Zucker could possibly incentivize everyoneinvolved was to pay such an extraordinary license fee that the serieswould become a serious loss leader for the network. It did not makea lot of business sense, but Roth and Rosenblum were certainlyeager to hear what Zucker had to say.

At the meeting, Zucker got right to the point: ?Last year when weasked you what it would take to secure a tenth season of Friends,you told us how much it would take. We?re here to tell you that wedo want a tenth season and that we are prepared to pay that exactamount: $10 million an episode.?

Roth and Rosenblum were stunned. They had given NBC a figurewhere it would legitimately make sense to extend the show onemore year?and Zucker had gone right to that figure. First offer.The excitement in their reaction was palpable. Graboff thoughtthe Warner executives might actually leap up and high-five eachother and Nancy Josephson might kiss Zucker. Then everyonepulled themselves together. The Warner side brought up the potentialreluctance of the creators and cast, who might already be ?emotionallyprepared? for the series to end. After all, didn?t JenniferAniston want to get more seriously into movies?

Zucker and Graboff sensed where this was heading: a request foreven more money?this was Hollywood, after all. Zucker shut downthat line of conversation immediately, saying, ?We are giving you thenumber you guys previously said you would take.? There were notgoing to be any bump-ups, not to stroke Aniston?s ego or for anyother reason. The Warner side got the message and backed off.

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