Television's best cliffhangers over the next few weeks won't be on the air but behind the scenes.
NBC and Fox are facing deadlines and delicate negotiations that will determine whether two of their most popular series -- "Friends" and "The X-Files" -- will continue next season or end abruptly.
Stars of each show are playing hardball in seeking more money to continue, arguing that they are not receiving what they're worth now that reruns of both programs are being shown in the lucrative syndication market.
"Friends" isn't as popular in its sixth season as it once was, but it is still NBC's top-rated comedy and leads off the powerful Thursday schedule. "The X-Files," in its seventh season, has also faded in the ratings. But it is Fox's most popular drama, and two of the struggling network's other dramas, "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Party of Five," are going off the air this year.
"Thursday is NBC's strongest night and Sunday is Fox's strongest night," said Mike Greco, manager of broadcast research for the advertising firm BBDO Worldwide. "The reason is because of their anchor shows. If you lose one of those anchor shows, it's going to hurt."
As they did before, the six stars of "Friends" -- David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc -- are banding together in an all-for-one, one-for-all negotiation.
Each actor reportedly earned $125,000 per episode this season. Entertainment Weekly reported that they are asking for as much as $800,000 per show to continue, plus some back pay. There's some precedent they can point to: NBC gave Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser $1 million per episode for the last season of "Mad About You," which turned out to be a ratings disaster.
NBC wouldn't comment on the negotiations. The network announces its fall schedule to advertisers on May 15.
"The X-Files" situation is more complicated because star David Duchovny has frequently spoken in interviews about getting tired of the show and he has a lawsuit against its producers.
Duchovny told The Associated Press this week that "it's 50-50" whether he returns to "The X-Files" and that "if it ended, it'd be fine. It's been seven really interesting years."
Even more important than extra money is the opportunity for him to write and direct more episodes of the series, Duchovny said. His co-star, Gillian Anderson, is signed for one more year.
Fox declined comment on the talks other than to say the network wants "The X-Files" to return. The show is produced by 20th Century Fox, which also wouldn't comment.
Duchovny sued 20th Century Fox last year, claiming the company gave Fox-related companies sweetheart deals for syndication rights to "The X-Files" that cost him a great deal of money. He said he wants to settle the lawsuit as a condition for returning for another year.
Fox is due to announce its fall schedule May 18.
(David Bauder, Associated Press)*
GAME SHOWS FOR $100, ALEX: The "Jeopardy" contestant search comes to Pittsburgh June 18 and 19, and WPXI is already giving away auditions to viewers who call while watching Channel 11. The 11th caller during the 6:30 to 7 a.m. news and during "Jeopardy!" will get a chance to audition for the game show.
Anyone interested can also register for a chance at an audition on the Web site www.jeopardy.com or by sending a postcard with the contestant's name, address, phone number, age and birthdate to Jeopardy Pittsburgh, P.O. Box 972, Culver City, Calif., 90232.
WPXI will only audition adults through its contest, but the "Jeopardy" producers are also looking for children ages 10 through 12 to audition for "Back to School Week." Children should be registered via the Web site or by postcard.
(Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor)
STAYING AND GOING: NBC has renewed "Law & Order" through 2005 and will bring back "ER" at least through 2004... UPN has yanked Tuesday night cop drama "The Beat" from its May sweeps schedule. Expect the network to burn off remaining episodes this summer.