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How the cast of ‘Friends’ stuck together – and changed television

Analysis by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — “Friends” became a huge hit at a time when the major networks could still reliably generate them, and local TV stations still paid vast sums for rerun rights. Yet what distinguished the show perhaps more than anything at the time was the “All for one, one for all” negotiating strategy adopted by the cast, which made them rich and briefly made everyone else experts about their salaries.

The death of Matthew Perry has not surprisingly spurred waves of interest regarding the sitcom – which reached new generations of fans via streaming – and prompted his former co-stars to express their devastation over his sudden loss. “We were more than just cast mates,” the five said in a statement. “We are a family.”

That sense of kinship and camaraderie was evident long ago, beginning with the decision to bargain with the network, NBC, and studio, Warner Bros. Television (like CNN, a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery), as a group. The united front was not only emulated by other programs in the years ahead, among them “The Big Bang Theory,” but offered a beacon of solidarity among performers, which seems particularly timely as actors and writers held together during their prolonged strikes.

Relative unknowns when the show made its debut in 1994, the “Friends” cast members were reportedly earning less than $25,000 an episode – hardly chopped liver, but not never-work-again money – when the series premiered.

In the third season, once the show had emerged as a staple of NBC’s “Must-See TV” lineup, they banded together to negotiate, securing a significant raise. By season seven, when the network was long past its option period on their services and they became free agents, their salaries ballooned to $750,000 each – times 24 episodes – and a cool $1 million for the final two seasons, though the order for Season 10 was reduced to 18.

As Business Insider noted in a piece looking back at those conditions, the “Friends” sextet benefited from good timing and fortune. Part of that had to do with NBC’s development missteps in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, failing to create worthy heirs to “Friends” or “Frasier,” which made the network even more desperate to hang onto them.

Initially, the collective strategy meant the two highest-profile stars, David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston, had to take a pay cut to get in line with Perry, Courteney Cox, Matt LeBlanc and Lisa Kudrow. Yet over time, the approach proved extremely effective, illustrating talent could exercise strength in numbers and overcome the divide-and-conquer tactics that networks and studios might otherwise employ.

The eight-figure annual paydays provoked debate about whether the actors could possibly be worth that much, which is understandable, especially if one overlooks how vital the show was to NBC and how lucrative it was for Warner Bros.

In a 2015 interview with the Huffington Post, LeBlanc called the question of whether they deserved those salaries “strange” and “irrelevant.”

“We were in a position to get it,” he said. “If you’re in a position in any job, no matter what the job is … to get a raise and you don’t get it, you’re stupid. You know what I mean? We were in a position, and we were able to pull it off. ‘Worth it’ has nothing to do with it.”

Indeed, the history of Hollywood has been that failure is an orphan, and when it comes to success, the sky’s the limit.

Financially speaking, the “Friends” cast soared into the clouds and then some. And almost two decades later, one of the defining aspects of the show remains, to put it in “Friends” speak, The One Where Everyone Totally Stuck Together.

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