Officially, "Friends" is scheduled to leave the prime time schedule in May, and everyone connected with the show has said the scripts for the upcoming season are designed to tie up the story lines that have developed during the show's first eight seasons on the air.
But now that the show has won the Emmy for best comedy series, and staged a ratings comeback, Hollywood observers are growing increasingly skeptical that NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker and Warner Bros. TV boss Peter Roth are willing to let "Friends" go.
"It's going to come back," a major network executive told Variety. "When push comes to shove, there's going to be too much money involved for everybody to walk away now."
The executive said NBC would "milk ... the final season for all it's worth," then renew it for a 10th season anyway.
Variety quoted another TV executive as saying the Emmy win improves the chances that the show will go on after this season because it "validates what they're doing."
"The cast all realizes what a great gig this is," said the executive. "They work 3 1/2 days a week, they're working with their best friends, and they're making an ungodly amount of money. As long as the stories are rich and funny, why not come back?"
The Variety report stipulates that there is not "a shred of solid proof" to support the speculation.
Producers announced in February they were putting the show to bed after this season, and Warner Bros. TV has been treating the 2002-03 season as the end of the line for the show. Variety said Zucker and Roth have even refused off the record to discuss a 10th season of "Friends."
At the same time, Zucker's public comments on the subject have been flexible -- including describing this season as "likely" the show's last, and saying he "wouldn't 100 percent put nails in the coffin yet."
Stars of the show have provided mixed signals.
"You can never tell what the future holds," said Perry. "But we certainly are, the producers and the actors, looking at this season as being -- you know, getting an opportunity to take a whole year to really close out the stories and stuff."
After winning the Emmy Sunday for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series, Jennifer Aniston was asked backstage about the chances for a 10th season. She didn't come right out and say it wouldn't happen, preferring a vaguer, "Who knows?"
"You look around and you see that a lot of reasons shows finish is (that) the ratings are really bad," said Kudrow. "We were No. 1 for the first time ever in our 8th season."
According to Variety, money will be the determining factor, with the actors and producers ultimately deciding not to walk away from tens of millions of dollars for one more season. NBC, which pays Warner Bros. TV $6.5 million per episode, would be expected to up the ante for a 10th season, even if it lost money on the deal.
"It's the most critical show to the NBC schedule," a Hollywood pro told Variety. "It's gives them the promotional base to launch everything else."
A source identified only as "a top executive" said "Friends" will definitely be back for 2003-04.
"It's too big not to come back," said the source.