Will it be Big or the Russian? 'Sex and the City' bows out with a cliffhanger

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The Independent Online

Will it be Aleks, the saturnine Russian artist - or, in the refrain she hears the fans chant every day, will Carrie marry Big?

As the final series of Sex and the City begins on Channel 4, not even its star, Sarah Jessica Parker, knows what is going to happen to her character, Carrie Bradshaw. One thing is definite: the ultimate single girl will end up attached - the question is, to whom.

The cast, who are filming their final scenes over the next fortnight, have been given scripts for different endings - one where Carrie ends up with Aleksandr Petrovsky, played by Mikhail Baryshnikov, the former Kirov Ballet star who came to dance in the West 30 years ago, and the other where she is reunited with old flame, Big, played by Chris Noth.

If that wasn't enough to tantalise fans, Kim Cattrall. who plays Samantha, last night claimed there were two further climaxes to be filmed. Either way, the end of the multi-award-winning series is sure to provoke tears - not least from Channel 4. The station has enjoyed huge success and advertising revenue with the show since 1998. To make matters worse, two other heavyweight series, Friends and Frasier are also coming to an end.

However Channel 4 solves its problem, one thing is for sure: on 19 March, millions of Britons will watch Carrie turn on her Manolo heels and stride off into the Manhattan sunset for good. It's a prospect fans are dreading.

Nia Daniels, a 35-year-old researcher from London, has watched the series from day one and owns every single episode so far on video.

"I'll be utterly bereft when it's over," said Ms Daniels, who is planning a party for the last episode, where guests will have to come in character. "I'll be crying - but I can't wait to see how they tie it all up."

Meanwhile, the concluding episode of Friends - again shrouded in mystery - was filmed last Friday. The smart money for the show's climax, to be screened here in May, is on Ross and Rachel finally reuniting. Frasier's future is less clear, but Paramount is believed to be announcing a date for its end within weeks.

It all adds up to bad news for Channel 4, which will be left with three sizeable holes in its scheduling - a point that has not gone unnoticed by advertisers and media planners.

Andrew Canter of Media Planning Group, said the next 18 months would be "a big challenge" for Channel 4.

"In particular, the end of Sex and the City is a shame from an advertising perspective," he said. "If you look at its profile and the crowd it attracts, there are no natural successors.

"There's a real dearth of quality programming coming out of the States at the moment, and that is going to affect broadcasters like Channel 4."

Andy Roberts of Starcom Motive voiced similar concerns. "It's relied on the best of American comedy for a long time, and you have to ask where that's going to come from now.

"The product appears to be drying up, and there is bigger competition for it now, with Five and Sky. It's a big challenge: advertisers buy the audience, and if that goes, so does the money."

Despite this, Channel 4's head of acquisitions, Jay Kandola, was upbeat about the coming year, pointing out that the channel had recently acquired The Simpsons and Nip/Tuck, the new plastic surgery hit, as well as mini-series Angels in America, starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. It will also continue to screen big-name US series The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.

"It is the end of an era in some ways, but we've got The Simpsons coming later in the year, and that, in my view, is the best show of them all," Ms Kandola said. "Something like Sex and the City comes along once in a blue moon and the channel will miss it - but there is still great repeat value in the episodes."

Ending one

Down the aisle with Aleks? Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw with the celebrated but tricky Russian artist, played by Mikhail Baryshnikov

Ending two

Or - the fans' choice - will Carrie marry Big, her handsome, successful, mysterious, on-off old flame, played by Chris Noth?