World: Medium of the week - Friends end highlights headache for US networks

The Friends finale reflects the declining quality of US network TV.

They won't be there for you soon. The last episode of Friends, one of NBC's flagship shows, is broadcasting in the US on 6 May. In the UK, the last episode will be shown in the UK on 27 May on E4, followed by a Channel 4 screening on 28 May.

The Friends finale is up there with the Super Bowl and the Oscars in what it commands per 30 seconds: some spots nudge $2 million and incumbents from what was originally planned as the final episode in 2003 have been offered a place in this, the bona fide finale. Movie distributors are reportedly advertising a film during every break.

Meanwhile, in the UK, spots are being sold on a platinum rating and there will be two episodes on the final night with one likely to be a highlights show, aping NBC's packaging. Channel 4 is charging £95,000 for the Channel 4 Friday spot and around £35,000 for the E4 premiere the night before.

In France and Germany, however, the Central Perk regulars are slipping away quietly rather than going out with a bang: a dubbed version is being shown on the French cable and satellite channel Jimmy, while the final series airs in Germany on ProSieben's cable channel this autumn.

But a question-mark hangs over what will replace Friends. Channel 4 will broadcast the expensive new jewel in its crown, The Simpsons, in November, although this will be scheduled for 7pm and will target more of a family audience. As Sarah Leigh, the TV implementation manager at MediaCom, comments: "This is the housewives-with-kids slot."

Will & Grace will occupy the Friends slot from June and Channel 4 is investing in new programming including Nylon, a drama set in New York and London, and Green Wing, a comedy drama. Meanwhile, US imports returning in the summer include The West Wing, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and The Osbournes.

Leigh says: "Friends and Sex and the City are girls' shows with younger, upmarket viewers. The problem is the Friday night slot. Channel 4 needs to come up with a hit drama. The question is whether they're going to get it from the US."

The end of Friends is causing sleepless nights across the Pond as it is symptomatic of bigger problems. Falling audiences for network TV and the rising popularity of cable channels means NBC needs to find another winner, particularly as Frasier is ending this year too. Hopes are being pinned on the Friends spin-off Joey, while a new sitcom, Arrested Development, has not yet attracted respectable ratings, in spite of critical acclaim.

Robin Kent, the chairman and chief executive of Universal McCann in New York, says: "The US TV market is changing quite dramatically. A lot is to do with falling audiences, decreased prices on network channels and the dissatisfaction of advertisers seeking alternatives. Cable programming has improved and so have the audiences. There's a big shift towards cable now with shows such as The Shield and Nip/Tuck, whereas in the past the highest-rating shows came from the networks."

So NBC is left with two big primetime holes to fill. And with its ever-growing number of reality TV shows (Average Joe Hawaii, Fear Factor and Who Wants to Marry My Dad?), an average night's viewing on NBC risks being more tragic than comic.

Channels: NBC (US), E4, Channel 4(UK)

Frequency: Weekly

Last transmission: 6 May (US), 27/28 May (UK)

Typical advertisers: Coors, Bud Light, Old Navy, Volkswagen, HP,

Neutrogena (US); Jacob's Creek, Pantene, L'Oreal (UK)

Cost per 30-second spot: Up to $2 million (NBC), £35,000

(E4), £95,000 (C4)

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