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'Friends' get $40m each for another 24 episodes

Fans of the long-running American comedy sitcom Friends could relax yesterday after news that an 11th-hour deal had been struck between the NBC network and the cast to continue with the show for two more seasons.

Nobody was happier than the cast members. By adopting an en masse negotiating technique, they landed contracts worth an astonishing $750,000 each for every new episode, more even than Jerry Seinfeld was paid at the end of his comedy reign on NBC two years ago.

With an improved cut of lucrative syndication revenues as well, the package promises the stars about $40m each for putting together just 24 half-hour episodes over the next two years.

NBC did the deal to avoid calamity yesterday when all three main US networks unveiled their programming line-ups for the autumn. Friends, now close to completing its sixth season in the US, is still the number one comedy programme in America and an anchor to the NBC schedule.

The network reportedly tried to keep salaries down to $600,000 an episode. That was the amount paid to all three main stars of Seinfeld in its last season two years ago. It also threatened also to write out two or three of the characters to save money.

NBC and Warner Brothers TV, which makes the programme, had to bow to the negotiating solidarity of the cast. Sticking together throughout, they demanded that the network take all of them for the new seasons or none of them.

When the actors first started on the programme, their per-episode fee was $40,000. Even with their new deal, the six are not quite breaking records. In their final episodes of another huge hit in America, Mad About You, the stars Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt were drawing $1m each - the sum the Friends stars were believed to have sought.

Friends, which follows the loves and lives of six no-longer-so-young New York denizens, also brings important revenue to NBC for its sales in foreign markets. Countries where it has caught on include Britain. Two seasons ago, the cast travelled amid great fanfare to London to tape an episode.

But its one-time domination of the prime-time viewership stakes has been eclipsed in the US by a new king. Modelled on the British version, it is the quiz show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, now running four nights a week on ABC.

Rumours in Hollywood implied at least two of the Friends cast - Lisa Kudrow and David Schwimmer - were less anxious to continue on the sitcom than their peers. Ms Kudrow, in particular, is nurturing a film career.