After 11 years on TV, Frasier says 'Goodnight Seattle' one last time

It's quite the season for long-running sitcoms to bid their final farewells. Just one week after
Friends ended its 10-year run amid endless publicity hoopla, tonight it is
Frasier's turn to shutter the studio lights one final time and go out into the endless night of foreign syndication and cable re-runs.

It's quite the season for long-running sitcoms to bid their final farewells. Just one week after Friends ended its 10-year run amid endless publicity hoopla, tonight it is Frasier's turn to shutter the studio lights one final time and go out into the endless night of foreign syndication and cable re-runs.

Yes, Dr Frasier Crane, the prickly radio psychiatrist played by Kelsey Grammer, is saying "Goodnight, Seattle" for good. It has been 11 years since the show got off to a flying start on its US parent station, NBC, and a record-breaking 20 years since Grammer first started playing the part - originally one of the barflies on Cheers .

Tonight's hour-long finale, we are told by NBC, involves a baby, a wedding and maybe a few other surprises as well. Frasier has always specialised in celebrity cameos - usually in the form of anonymous calls to the radio show - and the finale promises a stellar line-up including Robbie Coltrane, Richard E Grant and Jennifer Beals of Flashdance fame.

More striking even than the end of the show itself, however, is the way in which NBC has created a whole new marketing strategy to milk the final drops out of its highly lucrative sitcom cash cows.

On Tuesday, NBC aired two old episodes of Frasier in prime time, then devoted a full hour of its evening news show, Dateline , to the show. Tonight, the finale will be followed by a second hour of unalloyed nostalgia, star interviews and clips from the series. Tomorrow, the finale will have an instant prime-time repeat.

Friends received similar treatment a week ago. By the time the commercially significant month of May is out - when advertisers gauge the popularity of the various networks and set their rates accordingly - NBC will have aired nine hours of Friends and Friends -related programming, all on the back of a single hour-long final episode.

Interestingly, this saturation marketing seems to work. Last week, Friends smashed all competition to lead the weekly ratings. In fact, it delivered the best ratings for an entertainment programme on any network in six years. Likewise, Frasier led the ratings for its timeslot last Tuesday, and we can expect similar audience enthusiasm tonight.

NBC faces both a crisis and an opportunity here. The crisis is that it has lost two reliably popular shows in the same year, with nothing obvious to replace them. Dragging Friends and Frasier into yet more new seasons was no longer an option, because audience numbers before the final marketing push were dwindling and the costs of producing and distributing the shows were soaring, largely because of the inflated salary demands of their principal actors.

The opportunity has been to invent a new genre in network salesmanship, which one might call the fine art of the finale. In the past two weeks Friends and Frasier have gobbled up news time, chat show time and advertising time like nothing before them.

Frasier has racked up 31 Emmy awards over its lifetime, including a record-breaking five in a row for Outstanding Series from 1994 to 1998. The banter between Frasier and his neurotic brother Niles has reliably entertained over endless plot twists, romantic shenanigans and constant run-ins with their live-in father, Martin, played by John Mahoney.

Grammer and David Hyde Pierce, who plays Niles, have both been earning in excess of $1m per episode but both have maintained side careers in the movies. Asked by NBC's in-house interviewer what he will be doing next, Hyde Pierce replied: "I think next would be time off, most likely followed by some work on the stage." Sounds like a plan.

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