It’s been 15 and 20 years, respectively, since the last two sitcoms, Friends and Seinfeld, capable of generating 20 million viewers on a weekly basis have stopped producing new episodes. However, the Friends vs. Seinfeld wars continue. I think that Seinfeld clearly held the edge during its original run and in syndication, where it was the higher rated show on NBC and subsequently generated the most syndication royalties.
However, Friends has clearly stepped ahead in the streaming era, as Netflix just ponied up $100 million to keep the series on their service for 2019, which is roughly triple what Netflix paid for the sitcom this year. Meanwhile, three years ago, Hulu paid $160 million for streaming rights to Seinfeld for five years, through 2020. In other words, the streaming rights to Friends cost triple what it cost Hulu to license Seinfeld.
That is to say, if money is the ultimate arbiter, 20 years later, Friends holds up much better than Seinfeld in the streaming era. That tracks. I like both sitcoms a lot, but if I’m watching reruns for nostalgic value, I’m more likely to choose the goofy one over the misanthropic one while I’m hungover on the couch, and I know anecdotally that Friends is huge among teenagers, the same way that Leave it to Beaver was more popular than Father Knows Best in reruns in the ’70s, The Munsters more popular than The Addams Family in ’80s syndication, and Brady Bunch more popular than, I dunno, Gilligan’s Island in the ’90s.
In either respect, the $100 million is not only huge for Friends but another sign that the streaming wars are upon us. AT&T, which now owns Warner, wasn’t going to let Friends go cheaply, and they may choose to become the exclusive provider of Friends when their streaming service launches. Netflix, meanwhile, has begun shedding series that it does not produce originally, but it clearly sees the value of hanging on to Friends as it competes with new streaming networks from Disney and Apple, both of which will roll out next year.
I used to believe that Netflix would be the most dominant player in the streaming wars, but I’m beginning to see a future where it can be weakened. Netflix has a lot of great original content, but as the streaming services begin to operate more like television networks — exclusively airing their own original content — Netflix may find itself weakening, limited to only their own content. They have a lot of original content, but signature series like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black are ending, and now their most popular series is Stranger Things, which will have to compete with the IP of Disney, the massive catalog of Warner Brothers, and the infrastructure of Apple, which I assume will bundle iPhones with Apple streaming service subscriptions. With 57 million subscribers in the United States, Netflix certainly has a leg up, but it’s going to need shows like Friends to stay ahead of the competition as it continues to develop programming that can compete with decades of content from the likes of Disney and Warner.