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  1. Culture
10 August 2018

24 years after it first aired Friends is the UK’s most-watched TV show

The entirety of the show was added to Netflix in January of this year.

By Myfanwy Craigie

Almost a quarter of a century after the first episode aired in September 1994, Friends has been ranked the most-streamed television show in the UK. This is according to Ofcom’s Media Nations report, based on a survey of 2,500 viewers, which ranks the most-streamed television shows on subscription services, like Netflix and Amazon.

No other series even came close. Since all 236 episodes were added to Netflix UK back in January, twice as many episodes of Friends were streamed in the first three months of 2018 than its closest contender The Grand Tour (Netflix’s evolution of Top Gear).

Netflix has been pumping money into its original shows (last October the company announced it would be investing $8bn in creating original content), with significant success. The original series The Crown, Stranger Things and The Good Place all feature on the top ten most streamed shows in the UK. But in spite of this huge investment Friends, a show which went off the air in 2004, is still pulling in viewers in unmatched numbers.

It is the only show on the list that hasn’t seen new episodes come out in the past year. It is also the only comedy in the top five, although The Big Bang Theory, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place are ranked at seven, eight and nine. British comedy classics like Peep Show and The Office do not feature.

While Netflix remains secretive about its viewing demographics, one reason for the ongoing success of Friends may be down to it finding a new audience in Generation Z (people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s) who were toddling about or not even born when the show first came out, but are now in their teens. Meanwhile, millennial viewers, who would have been a similar age during Friends’ original heyday, re-watch the comfort comedy they grew up on. And for Generation X, who were the same age as the friends at the time, it is Nineties nostalgia at the click of a button.

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As this suggests, Friends also has an almost unmatched intergenerational appeal: it is practically the opposite of a cult classic. For 12 year olds, it is a gentle introduction to adult themes like alcohol, relationships and sex, while the more risque jokes slip over their heads. For twentysomethings, it is about a very relatable theme of uncertainty about where your life will go.

David Crane and Marta Kauffman, the creators of Friends, originally wanted to pitch a series to NBC about “six people in their 20s making their way in Manhattan” because they were both in a similar point in their lives, living in New York after graduating. Warren Littlefield of NBC Entertainment was at this time looking for a comedy about a young group of friends living together and when Crane and Kauffman pitched to him, NBC commissioned a pilot. There was some disagreement about the intended audience but Crane was emphatic that it would be a show that could be watched by everyone and this is what it ultimately turned into.

That Friends is the most popular streamed programme in the UK goes to show that we haven’t moved on from our attachment to the six friends. More troublingly, the online streaming figures seem to suggest we have not managed to make any television since that can rival it.

This is partly a reflection of the fact that Friends was incredibly popular at the time, wtih the finale drawing a record 8.6 million viewers in the UK. LA Times wrote a review when it first aired which echos a sentiment that would still be felt today: “Friends has so many good moves that there’s really nothing to dislike. It’s all so light and frothy that after each episode you may be hard-pressed to recall precisely what went on, except that you laughed a lot.”

The characters and the dynamic of the group have a chemistry that may seem good fortune, but can also be attributed to the collaboration between the producers, the writers and the actors, and their determination – despite pressure from above – that Friends would be a true ensemble cast.

The character of Ross was written with David Schwimmer in mind, but the other five roles were up for grabs and the characters of Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe and Joey were decided after auditions.

Reportedly Courtney Cox was supposed to audition for the role of Rachel because of her “cheery, upbeat energy” but Kauffman agreed with Cox that she would work better as Monica. Similarly Matt LeBlanc auditioned for the role of Joey differently to how the producers expected, but they came around to his way of playing the character. One reason for the show’s success is likely this initial flexibility.

Friends was by no means the first television show to feature an ensemble cast with all members receiving equal airtime, but the cast decided to take it a step further. During the second season, Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer were given a pay rise, although during the first season all six cast members had been paid the same amount. At this point they decided to take a pay cut so they were all being paid equally. The cast negotiated future pay rises as a group and by season 9 all six of them were receiving $1 million per episode.

It seems apparent there would be appetite for a re-boot, something Aniston considered in an interview last week.

“Before that show ended, people were asking if we were coming back. Courteney [Cox] and Lisa [Kudrow] and I talk about it. I fantasize about it. It really was the greatest job I ever had. I don’t know what it would look like today, but you never know. So many shows are being successfully rebooted. I know Matt LeBlanc doesn’t want to be asked that question anymore. But maybe we could talk him into it.”

Aniston then offered an alternative suggestion:

“Or we just give it some time and then Lisa, Courteney, and I could reboot The Golden Girls and spend our last years together on wicker furniture.”

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