In the second episode of Friends, way back in 1994, the television in Monica and Rachel’s apartment is tuned to a rerun of another sitcom, one that had aired its last original episode 10 years before.
“I think this is the episode of Three’s Company where’s there some kind of misunderstanding,” Chandler says in “The One With the Sonogram at the End.”
“Then I’ve already seen this,” replies Phoebe, picking up the remote.
It’s a mildly funny exchange between Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow that highlights characters we were still getting to know. But it’s also a nod to the way TV worked. Sitcom episodes, familiar yet not particularly memorable, tend to repeat well, and a show surviving long enough to go into syndication could make the people who produced them yacht-loads of money.
In September 1994, the creators of Friends, Bala Cynwyd’s David Crane — then known better in Philadelphia as the son of NBC10 veteran Gene Crane — and Broomall’s Marta Kauffman, could only dream of that kind of success. Ten seasons later, Friends left NBC in a finale that attracted more than 52.5 million viewers, and reruns were already making big money for Warner Bros., the creators, and the cast.
Netflix, then just sending out DVDs, was still a few years away from the streaming revolution that in 2015 would give its subscribers Friends-on-demand and ultimately lead the service that’s spending billions to develop its owns shows to pay a reported $100 million to keep Friends through 2019, but not before a brief Twitter panic.
Netflix famously doesn’t share its viewership numbers, but with so much emphasis on the originals with which it’s flooding the service, it wouldn’t be paying so much for Friends if it weren’t a hit.
Still, setting aside the fact that buying the entire series on DVD costs less than six months of a standard Netflix subscription, why would anyone be watching Friends on Netflix when there are so many other choices?
It’s really, really easy. Binge-watching generally is, but with episodes under 23 minutes, and, of course, no commercial breaks, the impulse to keep pressing play meets little resistance.
It’s presented well. In syndication, shows sometimes get edited down, or speeded up, to make room for even more commercials. Netflix will let you skip the theme song by the Rembrandts anytime you like, but when you want to hear it, it’s there for you. Along with everything else.
The stories and situations hold up, even when the hair and the technology look dated. (Landlines! Answering machines!) Crane and Kauffman weren’t just writing about the 20- and 30-somethings who were peers of their characters, but about the universal experiences of people whose adult lives are just getting started. No single generation has a lock on the feeling that “your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s D.O.A.”
This is how Friends makes new friends. In a 2016 interview with Vulture.com, Kauffman talked about her daughter, then 17, being asked at school, "‘Hey, have you seen this new show called Friends?’ ” For people who grew up with Netflix and Hulu and YouTube, streaming is where TV happens.
What occasionally raised eyebrows 20 years ago plays like comfort food now. Netflix has edgier programming, but nothing quite as relaxing as the furniture in the Central Perk.
Friends, a Top 10 show for its entire run, doesn’t need to be sold, or explained, to viewers, who may easily be overwhelmed by Netflix’s choices. (Netflix’s best original sitcom, One Day at a Time, is a timely update of the Norman Lear comedy that starred Bonnie Franklin. Maybe it would have more of the buzz it deserves if it had begun its life on NBC before showing up on Netflix?)
Broadcast television’s business model may be in decline, but the idea of making at least some comedies for broad audiences doesn’t have to be. Conventional wisdom says the chortling of studio audiences turns younger viewers off — and the people still raking in money from Friends just laugh.