February 18, 2002

Plot Twists Paid Off for 'Friends'


When NBC announced last week that it had signed its hit comedy "Friends" to return for a ninth season, the news was mainly about the stunning money – $7 million an episode – that it took to get the show to come back.

But the truly stunning comeback had already taken place. By generating new hot story lines and high-decibel laughs, "Friends" emerged last fall from the kind of malaise, characterized by diminishing ratings and laughs, that has afflicted many hits in their later years. As it did, the show stormed back to the top of the ratings and back into the hearts of its fans, and the pockets of its network.

In marrying off two characters (Monica and Chandler) and making another (Rachel) pregnant with a fourth (Ross) as the father, and ultimately a fifth (Joey) as a new love interest for the expecting mom, "Friends" became the latest hit comedy to prove that a flagging series can be revived by the right creative choices, usually ones involving some life-changing experience for its characters.

Only a year earlier, NBC's "Frasier" proved the same point by bringing the show's longest-running subplot, the unrequited love between two characters (Niles and Daphne) to center stage, setting off a similar creative and ratings resurgence.

But as several producers and writers of other series said, life-changing plotlines are fraught with risk because the wrong choices may hasten a show's cancellation.

A case in point is ABC's "Dharma and Greg," which had its premiere three years after "Friends" but also began to wobble in the ratings last season (not coincidentally because it was faced off against the brilliantly revived "Frasier"). The creators of "Dharma and Greg," looking for a similar boost, made some bold decisions about their married couple. Dharma would become infatuated with another man, then have a car accident, nearly die and start off the new season in a wheelchair.

The show returned this season, but the lesson was that some life-changing plotlines are clearly better – and funnier – than others. As David Crane, one of the three creators of "Friends," put it: "You want to take the characters to places where they can stay fresh from a writing standpoint, but it's never a sure thing. It's only later you can say, 'Oh, yeah, that's working really well.'"

Marta Kauffman, another member of the "Friends" brain trust, said, "All we were looking for was an engine for the season." In the hands of the "Friends" writers, that engine proved powerful, pushing the series back to the No. 1 spot in all of television.

The signs were there for "Friends" at the close of last season, and none of them were good: CBS's "Survivor" had come into its once impregnable time period and beaten it; fans of "Friends" were saying that they felt as if the show had lost something of its fastball dialogue; and most important, the enormous amount of money that NBC had committed two years earlier to keep a restless cast intact seemed about to dry up, at least based on off-the-record comments from network executives.

That the eighth season of "Friends" was destined to be its last was so taken for granted that Mr. Crane raised almost no reaction when he told reporters at a news conference last summer that he did not see why the endpoint was a foregone conclusion. Only a couple of reporters bothered to write about Mr. Crane's comments. The rest thought that he was posturing and that at least two or three of the cast members would never sign on for another season.

"I thought I was very convincing," Mr. Crane said. He said he was sure then that the show had life left in it.

The creators had set up the marriage plot as the finale of the seventh season, but Ms. Kauffman said they already knew that they would introduce the pregnancy story, though they would save the revelation that Rachel was the one who was pregnant until this season. Then the revelation of Ross as the father could be played out for another few episodes.

"The idea about Joey and Rachel came up in midseason," Mr. Crane said. "And we really liked that."

The new creative strategy worked, helped by what turned out to be an award-winning promotion campaign and by getting the jump on the latest version of "Survivor."

Scott Sassa, the president of NBC West Coast, also acknowledged that "Friends" gained some special advantage from the hunger among Americans for shows they loved, especially those they could laugh at, in the wake of Sept. 11.

"Friends" fans returned in legion. Ratings increased 17 percent over the previous season. By November, NBC executives were no longer talking about not having the money to pay for one more year of the series.

And even the famously finicky cast members took note of how much affection there was for the show. "The reaction of the public felt exciting," said Kevin Bright, the show's third creator. Dealmaking commenced. NBC could not afford to lose the No. 1 show. Paying each actor $1 million an episode helped ease their reluctance to stay in their roles for yet another year.

The news was not as good over at "Dharma and Greg." Last spring ABC passed on automatically renewing the show and it was being offered to other networks. One executive at a competing network admitted that "when I heard about the car accident and her being in a wheelchair, it gave us some pause." Eventually ABC brought the show back. But it was moved to 8 p.m. from 9, a decision that Bill Prady, the show's executive producer, said hurt far more than any discomfort the show's fans might have felt with the new plotline.

"I don't think they could find us," he said. Sept. 11 was a negative in this case, he said, because ABC was concerned about broadcasting promotional messages that featured the car accident and so pulled those for "Dharma."

Though he said he remained convinced the car accident plot helped the show creatively, Mr. Prady added: "Was this a very risky thing to do? I can't deny that."

Ratings for "Dharma and Greg" are down about 30 percent from last season. Its status for next season remains in doubt.

In its announcement about "Friends," NBC said that next season would be the show's last. Not even Mr. Crane is contradicting that point this time, even though it seems likely that the show will be the television audience's favorite again next season.

But there are limits, even to creative plotlines. A senior executive involved in the NBC deal said that "Friends" could not come back for a 10th season because the studio that owned it, Warner Brothers, has no further leverage with the stations that bought the show in syndication.

"They were obligated to take all the episodes for nine seasons," the executive said. "The stations already have more than enough, and they won't be willing to pay for more, so the money just won't be there to pay the same salaries to these actors for another year."

That does not mean that there cannot be a spinoff. "I'm sure NBC will ask for that," the executive said. "Look for a show built around Joey. That's the best bet at this point."

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