Will joey fill the void as friends drift apart?

NBC needs to find successors to Friends and Frasier, which have anchored its schedules for years, but spin-offs have a patchy record, writes Polly Devaney

It’s the end of a decade of friendship. Forty million people are expected to watch the two-hour, final episode of Friends when it airs tomorrow (May 6) in the US on NBC. Multiple endings have been recorded for the tenth and last series of the sitcom and apparently even the cast do not know which one will be used.

The finale, filmed on a closed set in January, caused emotional scenes among cast and crew. NBC is asking for $2m (&£1.1m) for a 30-second ad during the final episode – almost as much as the cost of a slot in the Superbowl decider and with about a third of the viewers. This undoubtedly reflects the historic nature of this final episode and the fact that the demographic of Friends watchers is a very attractive one to advertisers. Millions of Friends fans – some are predicting up to 60 million – are planning parties to watch the last episode with their own friends. No doubt there will be tears all round during the final scenes.

For ten years, Friends has been the anchor of NBC’s Thursday night “must-see TV” schedule. But with the imminent demise of the New York-based show, rival network CBS finally sees a chink in the armour of NBC. At a press conference in mid-April, CBS chairman and chief executive Leslie Moonves said he was confident that the Viacom-owned network would see double-digit advertising revenue growth. “CBS will do well,” he said. “We will take money from other players, especially on Thursday night… a lot of money will shift to CBS. Everyone else has ageing programming. Overall, we are solid, and we are getting younger.”

This spring brings a double blow for NBC, with Frasier, winner of 31 Emmys – more than any other comedy in history – also ending after an 11-year run. Although Frasier had dipped in the ratings and the departure of the show was not entirely the cast’s decision, it was still a good horse for NBC’s stable. While it may be the end of Friends and Frasier, it certainly won’t be the end of the shows’ marketing machines. There are the obvious DVDs and books and oversized mugs, but alongside these at the NBC store you can buy umbrellas, mouse mats, the Friends Trivia game, nightshirts and even Friends Christmas tree decorations. If Frasier fans need something to cuddle up to ease their pain, there is always the stuffed version of the show’s dog, Eddie.

NBC has been employing some interesting tactics as it has aimed to milk the final episodes and their advertising revenue. As well as asking viewers to vote on their favourite episodes and reshowing them, Friends episodes in this final series have not been a neat 30 minutes long, but strange lengths such as 39 or 42 minutes. Why? So that viewers who watch Friends will not then be able to switch to another network and catch the start of a different programme. NBC thinks that viewers will therefore be hooked into the network for the entire evening and not just tune in for one show.

In a similar tactic, NBC has also decided to move the starting date of its prime-time autumn TV season forward from September to August to follow its Olympics coverage. NBC clearly believes that once you have the viewers in your clutches, you must do everything in your power to keep them.

But what can possibly fill the void for NBC, not to mention the millions of fans of these long-running shows? This has been a quandary that has been perplexing the chiefs at NBC for at least two years, as the cast of Friends have been threatening to end it all for a while now. The last break-out show that NBC created was Will & Grace – and that was six years ago. The pressure is on and, for now, the new Friends spin-off show Joey, staring Matt LeBlanc, is hoping to carry the torch and will take over the Friends Thursday night slot from the autumn. Although the history of spin-off shows is not full of shining successes – and many people have voiced doubts over whether Friends characters will be able to go it alone successfully – it is worth remembering that Frasier was itself a spin-off from Cheers.

NBC president Jeff Zucker, who has been dreading the end of Friends for several years, announced the new show last summer at a gathering of the Television Critics Association. He told the audience that LeBlanc was the only member of the Friends cast to be offered his or her own show, adding that Joey Tribbiani has become the public’s favourite. “Joey has emerged as the character America roots for and loves,” said Zucker. Three members of the creative team at Friends – executive producers Kevin Bright, Scott Silveri and Shana Goldberg- Meehan – will work on Joey. LeBlanc’s new contract also includes plans for him to star in two feature films from Warner Bros Pictures, makers of Friends and Joey. The premise for Joey is that the character has moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.

Aside from comedy, it seems that reality television shows are as popular as ever in the US. There is even a magazine dedicated to the genre, Reality TV Magazine, a 48-page quarterly title, being launched this summer in the States. The magazine claims it will “focus exclusively on Reality Television. Reality TV Magazine will have a grassroots feel, blurring the world of reality TV with the world of technology, and including articles highlighting both reality TV stars and fans.” No doubt the magazine will be a huge success. Shows such as American Idol – Where Are They Now? are capitalising on peoples’ fascination with those who go from zero to hero in the space of just a few television hours.

The recent major reality television success in the US has been a show called The Apprentice, also part of Thursday night’s NBC line-up and created by Matthew Burnett, the British man behind Survivor. As it turned out, the real star of the show was Donald Trump. Sixteen hopefuls started off competing for the prize of a $250,000 job as the right-hand person of “The Donald”. Each week they were given tasks to do and the person who Donald judged to have fared least well was unceremoniously dismissed. Donald’s catchphrase for the show became “You’re fired!” In an interesting and unexpected twist at the end of the series, Sam Solovey, the fourteenth-placed competitor, has offered Donald Trump $250,000 (&£141,000) if he gives him a job. Donald is still considering this unlikely offer, but waiting in the wings is none other than Reality TV Magazine, which has said that Sam can have the job of president of the magazine if he hands over just $125,000 (&£70,000).

Despite the continuing popularity of the genre, reality shows themselves have a very limited shelf-life and new concepts are constantly required to capture the public’s imagination. It is almost impossible to imagine that a reality show could take the place of a hit such as Friends, hence the hopes have been pinned on Joey. Even though LeBlanc’s former Friends co-stars are rumoured to have all offered to make guest appearances on Joey, it seems a weighty burden for one actor to carry and no one can guarantee that he will pull it off. It will be a nervous time for the networks and a battle that the advertisers will no doubt be watching carefully and maybe a reality show about the makers of the reality shows while making a reality show is just around the corner?

Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive now working as a freelance business editor

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