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Channel 4 loses £100 million Friends

UK free-to-air broadcaster Channel 4 has relinquished the rights to Friends, the US comedy series that is distributed by Warner Bros and airs on its digital channel E4. Channel 4 is understood to have been actively involved in discussions about renewing its Friends deal, but cable channel Comedy Central eventually won the rights.

Channel 4 first picked up the ensemble comedy in 1994 before pay TV operator BSkyB took the rights in 1996. Channel 4 then won them back in 1999. Industry sources say Channel 4 has paid over £100 million for Friends since then. A deal for Friends and ER that ran between 2001 and 2004 is valued at £100 million alone.

The current Friends deal means Channel 4 can continue to air episodes of the series, which ran on NBC in the US from 1994 to 2004, until autumn 2011.

Head of acquisitions Gill Hay said: “We are incredibly proud to have been the home of Friends for so long, but at a point when the channel is undergoing a period of creative renewal it felt like the right time to part company.”

The acquisition of the show by Comedy Central has been overshadowed by headlines in the UK press about it disappearing from E4. Execs at the channel are understood to feel somewhat aggrieved.

A source close to the situation told TBIvision: “This isn’t Comedy Central feeding off Channel 4’s scraps – [Comedy Central] was gunning for it. There was a competitive bidding process that’s been going on for at least eighteen months and Channel 4 was part of that.”

Channel 4, meanwhile is adamant it made a conscious decision to drop Friends. “There’s always a point in discussions when various options are discussed,” spokeswoman Donna Emmerson said. “We made the decision we didn’t want to carry on with the contract.”