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Tuned In: Losing Friends

Thursday, January 15, 2004

By Rob Owen

BURBANK, Calif. -- We'll always have "Friends," but after May, we'll have only old "Friends" -- a k a reruns. Production on the landmark comedy series concludes this month after 10 years and 236 episodes. On the "Friends" soundstage Tuesday afternoon, the cast and producers met TV critics for a final press conference.

"This is gutting us," said star Jennifer Aniston about the cast's emotions as they approach the end of the series. "We're like delicate china right now, and we're speeding toward a brick wall and inevitable pain."

Series creator Marta Kauffman made a different analogy.

"I imagine it's what it's like to get divorced from someone you still love," she said.

"It's a deeper loss than I was expecting," said star Lisa Kudrow.

In an attempt to ward off an overdose of the bittersweet, star Matthew Perry was serious and then let loose with a wisecrack.

"Fifty percent of me feels that it's the right time, the right time to be closing," Perry said. "It's time for me, personally, to get back on my figure skates ..."

"That's what we're going to miss," said star Courteney Cox Arquette, cracking up.

The one-hour "Friends" finale will air May 6, preceded by a one-hour retrospective. Cast and producers have read the final script but were wary of revealing anything specific about its contents.

"One of the important things to us was that it still felt like our show," Kauffman said.

"We didn't want to do something highly conceptual," said creator David Crane. "It's an episode of 'Friends.' "

Series finales are always a tough nut to crack. Try too hard, you end up with "Seinfeld," which disappointed many viewers. The "Friends" cast and producers cited "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Newhart" and "The Larry Sanders Show" as finales they hope to take their cues from. Crane said he and Kauffman struggled when writing what was originally intended to be the final scene. Ultimately they dropped it. "We lopped it off," Crane said. "That last scene was just too hard."

"It's exactly what I had hoped," star David Schwimmer said of the last script. "We all end up with a sense of a new beginning and the audience has a sense it's a new chapter for all the characters."

The "Friends" cast agreed to this final season in exchange for making fewer episodes. That means viewers will see an inordinate number of reruns leading up to the finale. Fans can vote on America Online for their favorite "Friends" episodes, which will air for six weeks beginning in early March. The episodes will include scenes that have not previously aired on television.

The cast and producers declined to discuss "Joey," the spin-off premiering this fall and starring Matt LeBlanc's lovable lunkhead. But they did debunk an online report Monday that the cast had signed to film a reunion special for November sweeps.

"We haven't even left yet," Aniston said. "Don't you need to be away a lot longer for it to have any impact?"

With "Friends" and "Frasier" ending, NBC will have to alter its promotional campaign, which has been calling "Friends" the "best comedy ever."

"I don't blame them for saying that," said "Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer earlier this week, breaking into a smirk. "Although we all know it's not true."

NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker, who sang the praises of the "Frasier" cast Monday, turned his attention to "Friends" on Tuesday.

"Just take what I said yesterday, take out 'Frasier,' insert 'Friends,' " Zucker said. He can really spread it around. Yesterday he said of "ER," "We're prouder of that show's quality than any show on our air."

NBC looks to future

For a guy whose network has seen the steepest decline in demo-friendly adults 18-49 this season, NBC's Zucker is pretty confident. NBC is off 9 percent in that key demographic, ABC is off 5 percent, CBS is off 3 percent and Fox is flat.

Zucker's solution: Throw out the old rulebook.

"If we play by the old rules, we're all going to get left behind," Zucker said. "There is a generation of viewers now who've grown up on MTV and video cameras in their hands making their own films and playing video games and all they do is surf around. They're sophisticated enough now to find the hot new Web sites and the hot new show and the hot new channel."

It's this philosophy that led NBC to yank an original "West Wing" back in October when it would have competed with highly rated baseball coverage on Fox. It's the same attitude that led NBC to schedule the second episode of "The Apprentice" for last night and then move it to tonight after CBS tried to counterprogram with an original "CSI."

"We give viewers a lot of credit that they can find the programs," Zucker said. "They'll find the programming they want to watch."

That's a great excuse, but NBC makes those last-minute schedule changes for itself, and viewers, who generally don't keep track of network programming by the minute, suffer.

It may be inconvenient, it may be disappointing, it may be frustrating, but viewers will find their shows eventually, as Zucker suggests. Or they'll just throw up their hands in disgust and give up on broadcast television, which is probably the sanity-preserving option.

NBC's midseason series include a sitcom, "Come to Papa," which was not presented to critics here at the press tour. "Crossing Jordan" will return to the schedule, airing at 10 p.m. Sundays in March. "The Restaurant" returns in April, and new editions of "For Love or Money" and "Last Comic Standing" will air over the summer.

"Ed," now airing at 9 p.m. Fridays will have its season finale Feb. 6 with the wedding of Ed (Tom Cavanagh) and Carol (Julie Bowen). NBC probably won't make a decision on whether to renew the show until May.

NBC will counterprogram against the Super Bowl, airing on CBS, with three episodes of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." In February sweeps, Paris Hilton guest stars on "Las Vegas" as a gold digger.

In the spirit of throwing out the old rules of broadcast television, NBC plans to launch its fall schedule early, using August's Olympics coverage as a promotional platform for series premieres that will happen in early September instead of later that month.

Reeve back on 'Smallville'

Christopher Reeve will reprise his role as Dr. Swann on The WB's "Smallville." Reeve appeared last season as a character who told Clark Kent (Tom Welling) some details about his alien origins. Reeve's episode will air at 8 p.m. April 14.

Pilot picked up

Pittsburgh native Gretchen Berg, who's written for "Beverly Hills, 90210," "Roswell," "John Doe" and Fox's upcoming "Wonderfalls," has signed with Fox to create a pilot for a new series titled "One Big Happy."

Daily Variety reports that Berg will script the pilot with her long-time writing partner, Aaron Harberts. Variety describes the show as the irreverent story of an unconventional blended family.

Pilot dropped

Last May, The WB announced "Fearless," a drama about a young woman without the fear gene, for the fall schedule. In July, it got bumped to midseason and was replaced by "One Tree Hill." Now "Fearless" is gone altogether.

"You know, we couldn't find somebody who could figure out a way to crack the concept. You all saw the pilot," said Jordan Levin, WB Entertainment president, addressing TV critics Tuesday. "I know there was a lot of criticism about it. We all had those criticisms. Trying to figure out how to make that work was tough and we couldn't do it."

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 or .

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