“Friends” is just about as old as I am. The day it ended, I was 11, preparing to graduate fifth grade—still too young to actually watch the show (with permission, at least). This week marks the 15th anniversary of that finale, which drew north of 52 million viewers. It happens to coincide with the release of data illustrating just how large “Friends” continues to loom over our culture, 25 years after it began.
In researching the finale’s ratings, I stumbled across an amusing New York Times report. Two paragraphs in particular stand out, a snapshot of a time when the tremors before the streaming earthquake were really starting to rumble, attributed here to the “scores of new cable channels.” The focus on unscripted programming and declines since “Seinfeld” are especially noteworthy (emphasis added):
‘Friends’ eclipsed every other entertainment show since 1998, including the annual telecasts of Academy Awards and the finales of big reality shows like ‘American Idol.’ It even nosed out the most-watched reality show finale, the last episode of the original ‘Survivor’ on CBS four years ago, which brought in 51.7 million viewers.
Even though the numbers for ‘Friends’ were a steep falloff from ‘Seinfeld’ just six years ago, network ratings, even for hit shows, are well below what they used to be. The share of the overall audience watching the four networks has continued to drop each year because of scores of new cable channels.
Change was very much afoot. For instance, to use the Times’ benchmarks, in 1998, the year of “Titanic,” the Oscars pulled in a record 55.25 million viewers. By 2004, that was down to 43.5 million. (They drew less than 30 million this year.) The explosion in alternative options was already underway, and the networks were feeling it. Now, of course, they’re really feeling it.
But it’s not all bad news, and that’s because some of their shows are still remarkably valuable. Not long after it ended, I cycled through “Friends” several times with the help of TBS reruns and proliferating DVR technology. Now, Netflix has dramatically changed the rerun game, making “Friends” so valuable to its streaming lineup that it reportedly cost the company $100 million to renew its rights to the show this year. That’s more than three times the previous price of $30 million.
Why? A late-April report in the Wall Street Journal on new data from Nielson revealed “The Office” and “Friends” to be the most-watched shows on Netflix (the study was conducted over a one-year period from 2017 to 2018). At 45.8 billion minutes watched, “The Office” easily topped “Friends,” which viewers spent 31.8 billion minutes consuming. For NBCUniversal, which is posted to launch its own streaming service, that makes “The Office” very, very valuable.
“Friends” left NBC the year before the network launched “The Office” in 2005. Six years after that show ended, we live in a time with more television options than ever, yet spend more minutes watching old television than anything else. (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “NCIS,” and “Criminal Minds” are also among Netflix’s most-watched shows.)
Does that say more about today’s shows or yesterday’s? With each generation, another generation’s programs are lumped onto the massive and growing pile of options. If the scope of selections feels overwhelming today, imagine what it’ll be like in 20 years. Is our lasting obsession with sitcom reruns a symptom of option paralysis? So overwhelmed with choices, are we defaulting to what we know? Or are they just that good? At that level of viewership, how much impact do these shows have on our culture?
I really don’t have the answers to those questions, but with so many of us stuck in the “Friends” loop amid an ocean of new content to explore, they’re well-worth our attention.