While the cast of ''Friends'' has hinted that they're ready to hang up their coffee mugs, NBC is already jonesing for a refill. At this week's Television Critics Association press conference, NBC president Jeff Zucker admitted that convincing the cast to stick around for a ninth season was the network's ''No. 1 top priority,'' adding that contract discussions are currently underway.
This undoubtedly means a large boost to each ''Friends'' actor's $750,000 per episode fee. Luckily, NBC is getting used to cutting extravagant paychecks. The network recently shelled out $30 million to keep Jane Leeves on the set of ''Frasier'' for three more seasons (her costars David Hyde Pierce and Kelsey Grammer are already raking in $750,000 and $1.6 million per episode, respectively). But is spending tens of millions on aging sitcoms (a misstep NBC made in 1999 with ''Mad About You'') the only way to keep NBC's must-see TV status? And what if the Friends just say no?
''I'd bet my house that 'Friends' is coming back," says MediaWeek analyst Marc Berman, who suspects the cast's farewell hints are just negotiating ploys. ''And it's imperative that the show does come back because NBC doesn't have a single comedy that could inherit that time period.'' Though the network has spent the last eight years searching for sitcoms that can equal ''Friends''' ratings in the 8:30 p.m. slot, ''Jesse,'' ''The Single Guy,'' ''Veronica's Closet,'' ''Union Square,'' and the recently canceled ''Inside Schwartz'' have all fizzled.