‘Friends’ is the gift that keeps on giving to WarnerMedia
Morgan Kolkmeyer, a meteorologist for Chicago TV station WGN, has fond childhood memories of curling up next to her parents on a couch as they all watched episodes of “Friends.”
Two decades later, Kolkmeyer, 28, found herself perched on a replica of the signature orange sofa from Central Perk, the coffee house hangout of the six 20-something characters on the series, as she introduced four of her favorite “Friends” episodes to WGN viewers on a Saturday night in November.
“I don’t watch a lot of TV shows, and I don’t know a lot of actors and actresses,” Kolkmeyer said. “But I know every line of ‘Friends.’”
Kolkmeyer is among the show’s legion of multigenerational fans of the Warner Bros. Television sitcom, and her hosting stint was part of a massive marketing campaign tied into the program’s 25th anniversary. The push precedes the arrival of the beloved series on WarnerMedia’s new streaming service HBO Max, which has the faces of the “Friends” cast members as the opening image in its first promotional spot.
Whether “Friends” can replicate its status as a streaming phenomenon on Netflix, where young fans became obsessed with it, remains to be seen. But the show’s track record for regenerating its success is one for the TV history books. After 10 seasons as a major hit for NBC from 1994 to 2004, the program has earned roughly $5 billion from showing repeats on stations and networks in the U.S. and worldwide. It commanded $100 million in 2018 for its final year on Netflix, reflecting the ability of classic hit TV shows to capture younger audiences.
In 2019, WarnerMedia paid $425 million to make it part of its new service HBO Max for the next five years. HBO Max, which launches in May, is also reportedly ready to pay up to $2.5 million to each of the “Friends” stars — Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc — to appear in a reunion special where they would reminisce about their time on the show. They would not even have to learn any lines.
Even as streaming thrust “Friends” back into the nation’s cultural conversation, the series remains a durable performer on traditional TV, where it continues to draw viewers who are willing to sit through commercials. The anniversary has reminded fans that while they wait for its new streaming home there are plenty of ways to access the show, including daily airings on cable networks and over-the-air local stations that show them after their late local news.
“There is a lot going on in the world and ‘Friends’ provides escapism,” said Lisa Gregorian, president and chief marketing officer for Warner Bros. Television. “When people watch the news, they are not feeling so great and they really don’t want to go to sleep like that. So they are looking for a palate changer. It relaxes them.”
Gregorian’s full court press for the anniversary included Kolkmeyer’s couch at WGN, one of 250 that were custom made and provided to TV stations around the country. WPIX, which airs the show in New York, used the Central Perk set on a “Friends”-themed edition of its morning program. Overseas networks that carry the show received backdrops of the fountain seen in the opening credits along with grass rugs.
Warner Bros. booked a block of episodes on 1,600 movie screens through Fathom Events, the specialty screening company. In September, the presentation called “Friends 25th: The One with The Anniversary” took in $2.9 million in box office receipts.
Central Perk pop-ups around the country and sold 38,000 tickets in three hours. There was also one held at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Merchandise tie-ins included a Lego set version of Central Perk that sold out six days after its release. A special “Friends” DVD offer on Amazon was gone in a half day, generating $1.1 million in sales.
Warner Bros. estimates that in the four months after the promotional campaign was launched in August, “Friends” was viewed 1.5 billion times across cable networks and streaming services — 17% higher over the same period the year before.
The two cable networks that carry multiple “Friends” episodes a day saw a ratings lift in their annual Thanksgiving episode marathons and during the last six weeks since the series left Netflix, according to Nielsen data. On WarnerMedia’s TBS, “Friends” had an average audience of 434,000, up 19% compared to the fourth quarter of 2019. Viacom’s Nick at Nite episodes, which averaged 357,000 viewers overall, have seen a 7% increase among women aged 12 to 34.
TBS is airing all 236 episodes of the series in order, offering 12 each day through March 6. (Viewers who prefer to have “Friends” curated for them on traditional outlets such as TBS, Nick at Nite and their local TV stations will still be able to watch them after the series goes to HBO Max.)
As new mass appeal hits become scarce on traditional TV, the recognizable comfort food provided by “Friends” is valued by advertisers. In 2019, Nick at Nite and TBS generated $265 million in ad revenue from “Friends,” up from $258 million the previous year.
And viewers are paying attention to the ads, according to data. A study by TVSquared, an Edinburgh and New York-based advertising measurement firm that tracks the performance of commercials for direct-to-consumer marketers such as Wayfair and Casper, showed that viewers are more likely to respond to messages on “Friends” than other programs.
During January through August 2019, TVSquared found that direct-to-consumer advertisers received one customer inquiry for every 4,600 views of their commercials on “Friends.” The rate for all shows measured in the period, including other popular sitcoms, was one per 56,000 views.
AT&T has shown its appreciation for “Friends” as well. It put Central Perk pop-ups in its AT&T mobile phone stores in several major cities including Seattle, which already had a coffee shop inside. Customers were asked to put their phones in pouches to fully experience the program’s pre-social media ethos.
Seeing a world where people talk to each other instead of looking down at their phones every few minutes is part of the current appeal of “Friends.” Kolkmeyer said even her fellow millennials can feel nostalgic for that brief period early in their lives when landline phones predominated and digital technology played a less invasive role in everyday life.
“‘Friends’ brings you back to a time when you had to show up at someone’s house to know what they were doing,” she said. “You kind of wish it was the way people still interacted.”
“Friends” creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane say have watched in awe as the series they created 25 years ago still resonates with viewers. They have heard athletes from outside the U.S. say they learned English from watching the show. They have listened to fans recount how the characters helped them get through difficult times in their lives.
“I think people want to spend time with them,” Kauffman said. “They’d like to be in that coffeehouse drinking coffee. They’d like to be sitting in Monica’s living room and talking to these people. And I think people can really identify with that time of your life, with looking for love, and looking for work, and how do you balance all your friends. I think it’s identifiable.”
“Friends” has even survived current-day critics who disapprove of the show’s gay jokes, lack of racial diversity and fat gags that would have trouble meeting current social standards.
“They’re not wrong,” Crane said. “Our perspective has changed. The only thing I can say is certainly nothing was ever done maliciously. The last thing we’d want is the show ever to make anyone feel bad. I think we’ve learned a lot, as the world has. And if we’d had a more contemporary perspective then, would we have done some things differently? Absolutely.”
But the “Friends” universe of 1990s Manhattan will never be altered. While Kauffman and Crane said they are game for participating in a reunion special, they will “never ever” agree to do an actual reboot of the series using the same actors, characters or even the children of their characters.
“We have pushed hard to make sure it never happens, because we feel as though the show is done,” Crane said. “The six actors could certainly do it, but it’s a different show. And I don’t think it would be as good as the show as we did. And so then why do it?”