How did the cast of Friends manage to negotiate a salary of $1 million per episode?

I’m a big fan of the website Quora (specifically a place for asking and answering questions, and generally a fantastic resource for information). I’ve been answering questions there this year, and I’ve decided to start cross-promoting some of my popular answers here on my personal blog.

QUORA QUESTION - How did the cast of Friends manage to negotiate a salary of $1 million per episode?

Obviously the show was enormously popular, but it seems to me that the actors themselves along with their agents must have had some serious business acumen to pull that off. What’s the back-story here? Who were the primary negotiators? What was the negotiation process like?

MY ANSWER

It’s the middle of the second season of FRIENDS, and the show is a huge huge hit. NBC aired a special hour-long episode of the show after the Superbowl, and it turned out to be the most-watched night in television history. David Schwimmer (Ross) was considered the break-out star of the show. He had the role with the A-storyline (Ross and Rachel) and the movie offers started flooding in. So FRIENDS is a huge hit, and Schwimmer’s reps are suggesting that now is the time to negotiate a new deal with the network. Even though the contracts for all the cast were still in place, there was leverage to get a new rich deal in exchange for locking the actors in for longer contracts.

Now there are two important elements to know in Schwimmer’s backstory.

  1. Schwimmer came from a theater background, having formed the Lookingglass Theater Company in Chicago after graduating from Northwestern. The theater company, as many are, was very egalitarian. Everyone paid the same dues and everyone received the same compensation.
  2. Schwimmer’s parents were both attorneys, and his mother was a very successful divorce attorney, often representing famous celebrities.

So Schwimmer’s agents want him to negotiate a new deal for himself, and Schwimmer makes an unexpected decision. He rounds up all the “friends” and proposes that they form a mini-union. They all go in for a raise together, and demand equal pay. They all benefit from the leverage that he has as the break-out star of the moment.

Now this can be viewed in one of two lights (and I suspect as a combination of both). This is a hugely egalitarian and giving recommendation on the part of Schwimmer, effectively giving huge raises to the lower paid members of the ensemble. And also probably lowering the amount he’d be able to negotiate for just himself in the short-term. But it’s also a shrewd way to protect the cast for future negotiations, because the network can’t simply write someone out of the show. They’d have to write everyone off the show! Many people attribute this strategy to the influence of Schwimmer’s mother.

NBC could have rejected the idea of negotiating with the cast as a unit. They could have just kicked someone off the show, and potentially broken the unit. Of course that also might have broken the delicate chemistry of the show, and drastically reduced its popularity.

Once NBC agreed to negotiate with the cast as a unit, they effectively lost leverage in all future negotiations as long as the show remained a huge hit. This is what resulted in the huge million-dollar-per-episode contracts towards the end of the show’s long run.

Most of this is paraphrased from this fantastic article on the history of Friends.

Why do NBC comedies have such low ratings?

I’m a big fan of the website Quora (specifically a place for asking and answering questions, and generally a fantastic resource for information). I’ve been answering questions there this year, and I’ve decided to start cross-promoting some of my popular answers here on my personal blog.

QUORA QUESTION - Why do NBC comedies have such low ratings?

Community, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock… These are amazing shows. Yet similar shows such as Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory, as well as inferior comedies such as Two and a Half Men, have no trouble pulling in much larger audiences. What gives?

MY ANSWER

This answer is not going to contain many facts. It’s basically entirely opinion and conjecture. That said, I firmly believe that this is what’s happening…

I believe that we are at a fundamental cultural divide point; the divide being a porous border across generations. On one side we have the traditional mega-hit mono-culture seekers, and on the other side we have the large-niche seeking audience. Please note, I think that neither of these cultures inherently have more value than the other. Great content and terrible content can exist within each of these.

The mono-culture is represented by network television, tentpole movies, USA Today, and the local top 40 radio station. The value is a shared culture so people can feel one with their community. The community in this case being their friends, family, and neighbors. Because their interests may vary, the mono-culture consists of things that broadly appeal to a wide group of people, but rarely with much passion.

The niche-seeking audience is represented by cable television, specialty blogs, podcasts, YouTube, and so on. The value is a shared culture with their community, but their community tends to be distributed. It’s not necessarily about sharing with their geographically local associates, but they feel part of a global community of like-minded people. Because the content is very niche focused, it tends to have passionate support from people within the niche and little interest to people outside the niche.

The NBC comedies sit in a weird position. They appeal to the niche-seeking audience, but they air in the mono-culture system. The result is that their ratings are lower than those of true mono-culture shows such as Two And A Half Men or House. They are being judged by the ratings goals of mono-culture shows because they live inside the business model of mono-culture shows. This is why Community on NBC can be considered commercially unsuccessful but Louis on FX can be considered successful. Louis is a niche audience show with niche distribution and a niche business model.

I think that over time and as generations get older, the niche driven culture will continue to grow in size and the mono-culture will continue to shrink in size. Perhaps NBC is just ahead of its time.

Gavin Polone has written a great editorial on the insane casting process for Pilot Season (the three month period where television show pilots are greenlit, cast, shot, and killed).

On a more personal level, Pilot Season makes it almost impossible for an independent producer to cast a film during the months of February and March. Agents are unwilling to let their clients do an independent film if it means they might miss an audition for a pilot. They’ll turn away the certain independent film job in favor of the highly-unlikely pilot job.

I would love it if television moved to a year-round development and premiere cycle, rather than the ridiculousness of pilot season and fall series launch.

(via The Syllabi)

Maybe you got a new TV for Christmas. Or maybe you just got one recently. Maybe you are thinking of buying one. Whichever is the case, take heed: your TV will try very, very hard to make whatever you watch on it look not just bad, but aggressively, satanically, puppy-drowningly bad.

I’m driven crazy by the terrible standard settings on modern televisions. This is a must-read for anyone who cares about having a home entertainment system that doesn’t look like crap.