The one where Channel 4 finally stops showing repeats of Friends

As television endings go, it has been more protracted than Rachel and Ross's painfully drawn-out relationship.

Now, after 16 years and countless repeats as a Channel 4 fixture as reliable as Countdown, the stars of Friends are signing off, ending an era for generations of channel hoppers.

The US sitcom that followed the exploits of a group of young Manhattanites – and gave us Jennifer Aniston – made its last-scheduled appearance in the Channel 4 listings yesterday.

Its current run on E4 is due to end next Sunday. Last night Channel 4 said it had the rights to broadcast the show until the end of September but then Friends will move to the non free-to-air Comedy Central.

In 2004, Channel 4 premiered the final episode of Friends. A nation gathered round sofas with over-sized lattés, and wept as the Nineties' best-known romance finally came to a denouement. Of course, that wasn't the end. Not in a world where TV schedules are there to be filled.

And, for the familiar, easy-to-watch, Friends, filling schedules was easier than helping yourself to something from Monica's fridge. Even before new episodes finished showing, repeats from Central Perk had long provided the backbone of the channel's teen strand, T4.

The launch of E4 in 2001 gave fans of Chandler (and NBC syndication managers) something to smile about, too, as Friends became a four-or-more-times-daily piece of the TV furniture. Add in C4's two +1 channels and it became almost impossible to turn on a freeview box in the evening without seeing an episode.

A little-remembered sojourn to Sky1 notwithstanding, the New York sitcom is as linked to Channel 4 as Coronation Street is to ITV.

Last week, there were 31 of the show's 236 half-hour episodes on Channel 4 and E4 from Saturday to Friday. With the +1s that's 31 hours of Friends a week. That's a one-in-five chance of Friends being on TV at any time of the day.

The show became the frequent TV accompaniment to a dismal dinner on the sofa; hangovers wrapped in a blanket and the way to unwind after a busy day at work, too. It was so familiar that repeat viewers could fill in the lines before the characters said them. It was TV as wallpaper – albeit wallpaper with an enduring quality.

So what are they going to fill all that time with? Well, from 5 September, Friends' 8pm regular weekday slot on E4 will be taken up by a double-bill of My Name Is Earl, a David Blaine special and The Fantastic Four. Weeknights just won't be the same again, will they?

Friends on 4

*Friends, a sitcom charting the lives and loves of a group of young New Yorkers, first hit US TV screens on NBC in November 1994.

*Six months later, despite mixed early reviews, the show with Joey, Ross, Rachel, Monica and Phoebe crossed the Atlantic to find a home on Channel 4.

*Since then, the programme has won a devoted audience of mainly young viewers, spanning 10 series and 236 episodes.

*Watching all episodes back-to-back would take more than 82 hours.

*Repeats on E4 drew an average UK audience of 400,000 last year, while 8.6 million viewers in the UK watched the final episode in 2004.

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