£5.6m pay offer to 'Friends' stars

The stars of Friends are to be offered the biggest pay deal in television history to persuade them to make a final series of the hit US sitcom.

Broadcaster NBC was last night poised to offer each of the six lead actors £5.6m an episode to reprise their roles for a 10th season next year. If the new contract is agreed, it will far outstrip the value of their already lucrative earnings of £4.4m a show, making it the biggest TV deal ever.

News of the last-minute talks to "save" Friends will come as a huge relief to fans of the top-rated comedy.

Only last week, one of its stars, Jennifer Aniston, who many feared was ready to leave the show to pursue her blossoming movie career, hinted that she might quit acting altogether to become a mum. Aniston, who plays feisty young mother Rachel in the sitcom and is married in real-life to Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt, said: "In my mind, I'm done. I want to start a family."

However, keen industry observers might now be wondering whether her remarks didn't owe more to the tried and tested formula of threatening to quit in order to win a pay rise.

Until now, only three of her Friends co-stars, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc, have agreed to make another series. But their compliance is on the proviso that any final offer is acceptable to their colleagues, Courteney Cox, Aniston and David Schwimmer. The willingness of NBC executives to countenance such a huge pay offer underlines the importance of Friends as an international marketing commodity.

Since it first went on air eight years ago, it has been sold around the world, spawning a plethora of spin-off merchandise.