NEW YORK -- An estimated 51.1 million people tuned in to watch Ross and Rachel get together on the final episode of "Friends," according to preliminary Nielsen Media Research ratings released Friday.
Nielsen estimated that just under 36 million people warmed up for the last episode by watching highlights of the past 10 seasons during the hour preceding Thursday's finale.
Television's most popular comedy provided the ending most of its fans were hoping for, with the on-again, off-again couple declaring their undying love and the gang heading out for one last cup of java.
"It was really emotional," said Matthew Perry, who watched the finale with the other five cast members. "I pride myself on being a real man, but I shed a few tears."
Of more than 30,000 people to respond to an America Online poll, 77 percent said rekindling Ross and Rachel's romance was the perfect ending for the show.
"I just finished bawling my eyes out," one AOL member posted. "I am sooo glad you got off the plane, Rach. I should have done the same thing a long time ago."
The sitcom followed six New York buddies as they moved from post-adolescence to something approaching adulthood. In the end, Monica and Chandler were surprised by twins and prepared for their move to the suburbs. Phoebe was already married, and Joey is headed west to get serious about his acting career (and star in an NBC spinoff starting in the fall).
Thursday's suspense involved Rachel's plan to take a job in Paris and whether Ross would try to stop her. The couple's tortured romantic past included a quickie Las Vegas wedding and a baby, born in 2002 and seldom seen since.
First, Ross couldn't say how he felt. Then he went to the wrong airport. Then Rachel rebuffed him, and finally had trouble getting off the plane. But did anyone doubt they'd be together in the end?
In the final scene, the six friends gave up their key to Monica and Chandler's apartment.
"This is harder than I thought it was going to be," Monica said, before the six friends left for one last cup of coffee -- babies in tow.
"I'm a New Yorker, so I understand the whole lifestyle," said 33-year-old Joann Joseph. "I find it funny. I love how they all have different personalities, but they all come together."
The "Friends" finale was the second most-watched TV show of the year, behind the Super Bowl, which had almost 90 million viewers.
Television's most popular series finale ever, "M-A-S-H," was seen by 105 million viewers in 1983, according to Nielsen Media Research. The last "Cheers" was seen by 80.4 million people in 1993 and "Seinfeld" had 76.2 million for its 1998 ending.
The number NBC likes best is $2 million, which advertisers paid for a 30-second commercial on the final "Friends."
It's also the end of an era for TV comedy. With "Frasier" finishing next week, HBO's "Sex and the City" gone and CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" expected to end next year, television is losing some of its best and most popular comedies with little to replace them.
The six actors involved -- Perry, Matt LeBlanc, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, David Schwimmer and Lisa Kudrow -- maintained an all-for-one spirit off-screen, even negotiating contracts together.
Not everyone was a fan, with critics noting the incongruities of a New York setting with few ethnic minorities and struggling 20-somethings who could afford huge apartments.
But it's a franchise NBC will surely miss. Its spinoff starring LeBlanc's character, Joey Tribbiani, will take the mother ship's Thursday time slot next fall.
The network had hardly been shy promoting the "Friends" finale. It was the subject of a two-hour "Dateline NBC" on Wednesday, another one Friday and a one-hour preamble of old clips Thursday. Jay Leno filmed Thursday's "Tonight" show from the "Friends" set.
Unlike when the cast of "Cheers" was on "Tonight" 11 years ago, everyone from "Friends" appeared sober. The one big change: Kudrow's now a brunette.
"It was overwhelming, it was fulfilling, it was satisfying, funny and sad," LeBlanc told Leno. "It was too much to process."
Not everyone was heartbroken to see it go, especially with the show's omnipresence during the past few weeks.