By now, it has been highly publicized just how much money the streaming giants Netflix were willing to pay Warner Bros. to keep the sitcom Friends on their service. Anyone with more than five channels may have found this decision puzzling given that at least three of those channels are guaranteed to be showing a 6 hour long Friends marathon on any given day. It’s hard to turn on your television and not find an episode of Friends you’ve probably seen a hundred times, even if you don’t like the show. It is the crabgrass of sitcoms: It never goes away. Yet Netflix put down a rumoured $100 million to ensure it stays available to watch on their platform for another year. That means a nice residuals boost to the cast, an extra ivory back-scratcher or two for the executives of Warner Bros., and further think-pieces bemoaning the future of the medium (hi, how are you all?)
From a cold hard business perspective, keeping Friends on their service is probably one of the safest investments Netflix has ever made. While they are happy to continue bolstering their image as an indomitable entertainment giant with endlessly deep pockets, the true prospects of their media empire lie not with the swaths of original content they release every month. Sure, $100 million will get you a nice new season of The Crown but the chances are your users will just want to watch the same six shows they watch all the time. This isn’t speculation either. While Netflix remain tight-lipped on their viewership numbers, According to statistics recorded by Nielsen in 2017, only 20% of the time spent watching streaming services and video on demand, including Amazon and Hulu as well as Netflix, is spent on originals. Nielsen claim the other 80% is dedicated to back-catalogues of content they have acquired from other studios, both film and television. A customer may be enticed to Netflix by that new Stranger Things show they’ve heard so much about but most of their casual viewing time is probably going to be spent at Central Perk.
It’s not just older fans returning to Friends either. As bitter as we all are to acknowledge the slow, crushing passage of time and how it makes fools of us all, it’s hard to ignore that younger generation who didn’t grow up with the show and are now discovering it afresh. It’s a whole new world for them and as we have seen from this demographic’s viewing habits, they love to re-watch their favourite things repeatedly and with zeal.
Of course, Friends won’t be exclusive to Netflix. On top of it being available on seemingly every channel ever, the upcoming Warner Bros. streaming service will also feature it, although it has yet to be revealed how much you’ll need to pay on your package to watch the show. But that’s not where the lion’s share of viewers will be checking out the show. They’re staying on Netflix because it’s what they know. It’s almost a mundane habit to them now. Netflix and chill. Binge-watch eleven seasons of a sitcom them find something else or start all over again. The on-demand model now commands greater power in the entertainment landscape than waiting for your favourite show to start at its scheduled time. As a viewer, you’re also probably more likely to use Netflix as your first stop on this search. There are always exceptions but I’ve yet to hear someone say ‘I’ll see if that show is on Hulu’ before they check Netflix.
This is something that Netflix are keenly aware of. Their ultimate goal may be to have 50% original content on the platform but they still need that robust back-catalogue to get the subscription numbers up. That doesn’t mean they’ll own every show ever, even if that is the ultimate dream of many a media monopoly. Netflix’s streaming competition isn’t all that tough, despite the efforts of Amazon and Hulu, but it’s going to get tougher for them soon. Disney+ promises to be a veritable nostalgia machine, with the Disney filmography plus new shows and films based on Avengers’ cast members and animated classics. The aforementioned Warner Bros. streaming service may come with a cable package styled tiered payment system but there will inevitably be some viewers willing to shell out the extra money for both those favourite sitcoms and their lavish collection of Golden Age films (RIP Filmstruck). Can either of these juggernauts, which come with the benefit of built-in back-catalogues, decades of history and old-school industry clout, truly take on Netflix? It’s entirely up to how willing audiences will be to switch up their set routines and add a new service to their roster. Ultimately, we are lazy creatures who don’t like change and, as cynical as we are about the scary amount of power given to these business giants in the monopoly age, we still want everything in one convenient package.
Randall Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T, compared Netflix to Walmart in this regard, contrasting it to HBO, which held a more Tiffany’s style prestigious brand. He said that he did not mean this derogatorily, although it’s easy to see why some people did, but it also hints at why the streaming service as become so synonymous with our viewing habits in such a short amount of time. Netflix is big, Netflix has a lot, and while you may not find exactly what you’re looking for, you’ll certainly get a hell of a lot of options that are close enough to your desires to keep you happy. And even if that show you love is cancelled or the streaming rights lapse, you aren’t going to cancel your subscription. There will be other things to move onto.
Alas, this investment probably won’t lead to Netflix putting money down for those other shows you love, not unless it’s become a huge nostalgic favourite and the subject of memes across Twitter. BGR.com are already predicting that the next streaming rights scramble will happen over NBC’s The Office. The big news will come for shows of the 1990s and later. Netflix are infamously uninterested in adding vintage film and television to their back-catalog and that will probably continue, simply because the big audiences want what they loved in the Good Old-New Days. Even if you love Netflix, perhaps it’s time to start investing in your DVD collection once more.
Header Image Source: NBC