Matt LeBlanc played the same character in two failed Fox series, Top of the Heap and Vinnie & Bobby. So it won't be a first when he continues to play his Friends alter ego next season in the spinoff Joey.

That the stars came into the series with similarly modest credentials facilitated a significant creative choice. Friends would be a pure ensemble, with none of the six more prominent than any other. "No one had done a true ensemble," Crane said. "Cheers had Sam and Diane and Seinfeld had Jerry's name in the title."

The creators felt that utilizing six equal players, rather than emphasizing one or two, would allow for myriad story lines and give the show legs, according to Crane.

Mitch Shapiro, associate dean of the University of Miami School of Communications, said the fact that Friends never deviated from this plan played a major role in the series' success and longevity.

"I would venture that if you took a stopwatch to the show, you would find each character would have close to equal time in almost every episode," he said. "The show also had great writers who knew how to take advantage of all the possible permutations. They made the sum greater than the parts."

The all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality eliminated the petty jealousies that often plague long-running shows, famously epitomized by Suzanne Somers and Three's Company. It also fostered a feeling of camaraderie and unity, which sometimes backfired on the producers.

Once Friends became a huge hit, the six -- who lived the show's title -- negotiated sizable salary bumps several times with the threat of staying away from the set en masse. Their solidarity held every time. To the end, when each had a per-episode paycheck of $1 million, none made a dollar more than any other.

End of an era

The departure of Friends and Frasier signals the end of an era, Shapiro feels. "I don't know that we'll see shows with this kind of legs in the future. After Everybody Loves Raymond goes" -- expectations are this will happen a year from now -- "what will be left as TV's best comedy? Will & Grace?"

John Rash, a media buyer for Campbell-Mithun, concurs. "This is more than the end of two programs. It's the end of an era of seminal sitcoms, which enjoy broad popular and advertiser support. It's low tide for network TV. But comedies and dramas can make a significant return if there's a strong investment in writing."

Shapiro is not optimistic this will happen because of the reality craze. "The longer the networks stay with reality, the longer they're out of the habit of making quality scripted shows."

The consolidation of networks and studios also mitigates against a renaissance of quality scripted programs. Networks now select most of their prime-time series from their sister studios, something they were precluded by law from doing for many years.

"Look at TV history," Shapiro said. "The great shows weren't produced by networks. They came from independent producers like Norman Lear [All in the Family], Garry Marshall [Happy Days] and Grant Tinker [The Mary Tyler Moore Show]."

Friends and Frasier fall into the same category. Peering into the future, it is not overly pessimistic to wonder if TV will ever see their likes again.

Tom Jicha can be reached at tjicha@sun-sentinel.com.