Special Report: The US - The post-Friends era

As the final episode aired, a nation mourned. Can anything ever replace Friends, Glen Mutel asks.

Unless you've been on a very long holiday or are totally detached from popular culture, you'll know that the long-running US sitcom Friends ended this year. For much of the spring, it was extremely hard to avoid the fact.

Channel 4 milked Friends' passing for all it was worth, with repeats, ad campaigns and documentaries. On the day the final episode aired, the channel screened no fewer than 13 old episodes.

The final episode was the tenth-highest-rating programme in Channel 4's history, pulling in 8.6 million viewers. And these weren't just any viewers.

They were largely 16- to 34-year-olds. They were mostly ABC1s. And many of them were "light viewers".

"These are people who don't watch much TV," Vizeum's head of investment, Matthew Platts, explains. "These viewers are hugely valuable. They're hard to reach, but if you do get them, you're maximising the reach of your communication."

All of which shows just how valuable a decent US series can be to both advertisers and broadcasters. The end of Friends coincided with the end of two other long-running imports - Sex and the City and Frasier. These departures have left a yawning gap, and the race is now on to find the next generation of big US shows to take their place.

However, this won't be easy. The genres that normally export well out of the US are comedy and drama.

Unfortunately, the US is currently suffering from the same obsession with reality TV that first enveloped Europe half a decade ago.

Home-grown reality hits such as The Apprentice - in which the tycoon Donald Trump trains several members of the public and rewards the most capable one with a job and a huge salary - air alongside US versions of European formats such as Wife Swap and Big Brother.

"There are so many reality shows in the US that it has slightly choked the slots for both comedy and drama," five's managing editor and director of acquisitions, Jeff Ford, explains.

"Five years ago, you'd only had reality shows such as Survivor or Big Brother. Now, you've got everything from Extreme Makeover to Trading Spouses. It makes it much harder for other genres to come through and shine."

And it seems that comedy has been hardest hit by the reality craze. Robin Kent, the chairman and chief executive at Universal McCann Worldwide, explains: "The pure economics of it is that producing comedy is incredibly expensive, especially a show such as Friends where the actors are being paid almost one million dollars per episode."

One US comedy that did create some pre-transmission excitement was the Friends spin-off, Joey, which five bought for a reported £500,000 per episode. The show has performed reasonably in the US - its first three episodes have notched up enough viewers to persuade NBC to keep faith, which, in the trigger-happy climate of US television, is a success in itself. But Joey has failed to keep the pace set by its predecessor and is regularly beaten by Survivor.

Having declined to compete with five for Joey, Channel 4 has this year concentrated on acquiring drama. Channel 4's controller of programme acquisition, June Dromgoole, explains: "With American high-end drama, you're talking millions of dollars per hour, so clearly there's a rationale and a reason for buying some of that. They've got a much larger market and can spend a large amount of money. For example, Angels in America had a £60 million-plus budget."

Channel 4's two recent acquisitions Desperate Housewives and Lost have generated a great deal of excitement in the US and look set to turn the hitherto unfashionable ABC into America's unlikely buzz network.

Dromgoole claims to have been sufficiently impressed with the standard of drama on offer at this year's LA Screenings. "To find two good drama series there is not bad for anyone, not just us," she says. "And there was a couple of others too."

However, Ford, does not share her opinion. "It's slim pickings for drama at the moment," he explains. "We viewed a lot of stuff at the screenings and a lot of it was very poor," he says.

Another UK broadcasting executive goes even further: "The network dramas are derivative and weak and lame and flimsy and thin. So when something good comes along, it really does stand out above everything else by quite some margin."

However, one style of drama is buoyant at the moment, as Media-edge:cia USA's chief investment officer, Rino Scanzoni, explains.

"Apart from reality, the only other genre that seems to be clicking is crime drama - programmes such as NBC's Law & Order. The American viewing public seems to have an insatiable appetite for these programmes and I would imagine that they will probably export well," he says.

The crime drama genre has given the US networks one of their biggest hits of the new autumn season, in the shape of CSI: New York, the second spin-off from CBS's popular CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The original CSI, currently the highest-rating show in the US with more than 30 million viewers, has performed extremely well in the UK for five, as has the spin-off CSI: Miami. CSI: New York begins airing on five in February.

In recent years, the US cable networks have proved the most reliable producers of quality drama. Over the past half a decade, the subscription channel HBO has notched up a string of exportable hits such as Sex and the City, Six Feet Under and The Sopranos. Its latest effort, Deadwood, has been picked up by Sky One and is expected to perform well.

But HBO's creative crown is under threat from the rival cable channel FX, the broadcaster behind the successful exports Nip/Tuck and The Shield.

FX's current hit is Rescue Me, a drama about firemen, written and starring the comedian Dennis Leary, which has got critics and media buyers salivating and will almost certainly be playing in overseas markets before long.

As for future seasons, the consensus is that reality TV is here to stay and will continue to re-invent itself every couple of years. However, US buyers do believe that comedy will make a much-needed fight-back. Comedies are crucial to the big networks, as they repeat better than any other genre, and the big five networks, particularly The WB, look set to up their pilot-rate in the quest for that elusive hit.

Which is good news for the UK, because a decent US comedy provides 24 weeks' worth of high production values and a Hollywood star or two to boot. For both UK broadcasters and advertisers, the new Friends can't come soon enough.

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