This year they’re back in the Nielsen Top 10 (often at the very top of the list) and their Thursday night antics are back to being loudly discussed over water coolers and in chat rooms across the country. But here’s a quiet little secret, revealed by Variety: Reps for the cast of “Friends” are now negotiating with NBC and the show’s producer, Warner Bros. TV, about bringing the hit sitcom back for a ninth season next fall. (Warner Bros. TV, like PEOPLE, is part of AOL Time Warner.) The trade paper goes on to say that if the actors on the show weren’t interested in coming back, then they probably would have stopped their agents from meeting with network and studio brass . . . so there’s every reason to be optimistic. Financially, early indications are that Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer will require salary hikes from their current paychecks of $750,000 per episode to at least $1 million per episode. Furthermore, says Variety, a leap to $1.1 million for each half-hour doesn’t seem unreasonable. (A season generally consists of 22 episodes.) Last fall, according to USA Today, the actors unilaterally rejected an offer of $800,000 an episode. Looking toward the future, says Variety, they are facing the negotiations as one solid front and retaining the services of some high-powered attorneys and managers. After all, what are friends for?