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Last Updated: Friday, 7 May, 2004, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
Friends climax watched by 51m
Friends
The show has become a US institution
The emotional finale of hit TV comedy Friends was watched by 51.1 million people in the US.

Preliminary ratings showed it was the highest viewing audience since the last episode of Seinfeld in 1998.

NBC had predicted an audience of around 50 million for the last episode of their popular sit-com which was broadcast on Thursday night.

It was preceeded by one-hour retrospective of the series' six characters over the last 10 years.

Times Square

Viewers now know the outcome of the show's on-off love affair between Ross and Rachel, played by David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston.

The final show commanded advertising rates averaging $2m (1.1m) for 30 seconds - a record for a sitcom and the kind of figures usually reserved for the Super Bowl.

In New York, the final episode was shown on a big screen in Times Square, watched by 3,000 people from a park overlooking the Hudson River.

Fans also watched bloopers from the series during an official Friends Finale Viewing Party at Universal Citywalk in Los Angeles.

Fans gather at a Friends Finale Viewing Party in Los Angeles
TV network NBC devoted three hours of its schedule to the farewell episode.

It was followed by a special edition of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno featuring the six co-stars on set.

The finale received mixed reviews in the US press, with Newsday's Noel Holston calling the episode "sweet and dumb and satisfying".

But the Hartford Courant's Roger Catlin wrote: "Anyone new to Friends who succumbed to the hype to tune in Thursday would have been surprised at how laughless the affair could be.

"Nearly every strained gag depends on the sheer stupidity of its characters."

Friends stars on The Tonight Show
Friends stars were interviewed by US host Jay Leno after the show
The Salt Lake Tribune's Vince Horiuchi said the finale featured "about a thousand goodbyes (in fact, several hundred too many)".

He concluded: "At least in the last shot, they didn't turn off the lights anywhere."

Making its debut in 1994, Friends and its cast of easy-going single people caught on with viewers looking for an escape from the fast-paced 1990s.

It has made household names of Schwimmer, Aniston, Perry, Courteney Cox Arquette (Monica), Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe) and Matt LeBlanc (Joey).

While critics commended the series for its consistently sharp writing, a key ingredient of its success was the chemistry among the six principal actors.

Equal pay

They seemed nearly as close off-screen, as they bargained together for higher salaries as the series grew in popularity and commercial value.

This saw their pay climb to $1m (558,000) each per episode during the course of the show.

On The Tonight Show after the finale, the cast credited David Schwimmer with the idea of collectively bargaining for pay.

"We were doing the same amount of work... and there were six leads," Schwimmer said.

"So it just made sense that we would all show up and make the same amount of money.

After 10 years of pretty good TV, the show tarnished more than it tanned
USA Today
"It didn't necessarily, at the time, matter what it was, just that we were paid equally so there was no resentment down the line."

When the series was renewed for a 10th season, NBC agreed to pay production company Warner Bros Television a licence fee of $10m (5.58m) per episode - a deal that made Friends the most expensive prime-time series ever.

But detractors dismissed the show as a shallow fantasy about a group of photogenic, all-white 20-somethings whose only real challenge in life was drinking coffee.

"Friends was getting creaky even as it remained popular," said USA Today in an editorial on Thursday.

It emphasised the view of critics who saw problems for the cast hitting their 40s while still pretending to be 20-somethings.

Brad Pitt
Jennifer Aniston's husband Brad Pitt was among Friends' guest stars
"After 10 years of pretty good TV, the show tarnished more than it tanned; its winks have turned to wrinkles," said USA Today.

"Time does indeed matter even among the best of Friends."

The show also was known for the Hollywood stars who made guest appearances, including Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis and Tom Selleck.

It also featured cameos from Brad Pitt and David Arquette, the real-life husbands of Aniston and Arquette respectively.

Matt LeBlanc will reprise his Friends role when he stars in an NBC spin-off series, Joey, in the US this autumn.

Warner Bros plans to release a DVD of the Friends finale in five days' time, containing the original pilot episode and behind-the-scenes material.

The final show in the UK will be screened on Channel 4 on 28 May.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Tom Brook
"Will this final episode of Friends mark the end of the TV sitcom as we know it?"



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