Later this year, quintessential 90s sitcom Friends will turn 25 years old. Premiering in 1994 and running for 10 seasons, Friends enjoyed huge success during its run on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. When it came to a tear-jerking end in 2004, its last episode became one of the most-watched finales in US TV history, and today it remains the most-watched episode of the 2000s.
While Friends was never officially ‘off-air’ – reruns were a staple of E4’s schedule until 2011 when it then found a new home on Comedy Central, which continues to air up to 17 episodes a day – it never quite captured the attention of today’s kids and teens until it landed on Netflix on 1st January 2018. By the spring 2018 edition of Playground Buzz, Friends was #2 in the Favourite TV chart, and according to industry statistics, Friends was the most streamed TV programme in the first quarter of 2018 immediately following its addition to the UK Netflix library.
Supposedly a ‘mid-millennial thing’, Friends is also, increasingly looking like a Generation Z thing. In the 2019 edition of the CHILDWISE Monitor survey, Friends came out as the top favourite programme among 5-16s, and received as many mentions as YouTube. But why? Why is a TV sitcom that ended before most of these children were born still so popular? Below, we explore 10 reasons why Friends is gaining a new generation of fans.
1. The Netflix Factor
One of the key elements to Friends’ newfound popularity among school-age children is that it’s on Netflix and children are all over Netflix. According to the 2019 CHILDWISE Monitor report, three in five children aged 7-16 have used Netflix in the last week, rising to almost three in four (72%) among teenagers aged 13-16 (by contrast 49% of teens say they watched the top TV channel in the last week). Beyond sheer numbers though, there are other key drivers contributing to the Netflix factor.
2. Mobile viewing
The mobile phone is now the device of choice for watching on demand content, with three in five children favouring mobile viewing compared to around half of children that prefer an old-fashioned TV set. While most content can now be viewed on a mobile device, Netflix is less glitchy than some of the ad-supported platforms and it offers content downloads (Friends included) so it is data friendly for those wanting to watch on the go. Being available to watch virtually whenever and wherever means Friends can be consumed in short bursts when waiting for a bus just as easily as sitting down for a marathon binge session in the comfort of one’s own room.
3. Episode selection
When Friends was only available on Comedy Central, selecting a specific episode or watching the entire series beginning to end in order and in your own time would have been difficult. It wasn’t impossible, but it would have meant buying or digging out the complete DVD boxset. Sales of Friends DVD Boxsets were reportedly strong up to and throughout 2013 while DVD sales started declining at least four years earlier so Friends was bucking the trend. But, watching parents’ old DVDs or forking out £50 would have been either uncool, inconvenient, or expensive. With all 234 episodes available on Netflix, children can choose to watch particular episodes in whatever order they wish, hassle free.
4. Old is made new again…
Netflix uploads new content on a near daily basis, and whether it is genuinely a new series or one from the archives, there is little difference in terms of how a show is promoted on the platform, especially to customers who are algorithmically identified as being most likely to watch and enjoy it. Old is made new again on Netflix, and simply being added to its vast library makes it seem new, regardless of actually how old it is. For example, in early 2017, children started talking about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – it is unlikely, given how old the show is, that children would have specifically searched for it on Netflix, but once it was added to the library in December 2016, children started watching, and what was once a goofy, at times cringe-worthy, sitcom from the early 90s was seemingly new and cool again. Fresh Prince and Friends may look somewhat dated to varying degrees and in differing ways, but Netflix doesn’t shout about age – they are simply new Netflix shows ready to be devoured by anyone with access.
5. Easy, relaxing watching
Friends is easy watching – there aren’t any convoluted plots to try and get one’s head around, there isn’t any complex dialogue that requires a thesaurus to decipher, and there isn’t a vast fictional universe that needs to be explored and understood. While some storylines might make more sense if the series is watched in order, Friends episodes are largely self-contained and viewers can dip in and out at whim without feeling lost. A lot of contemporary TV is high concept and designed to be watched with eager concentration, but Friends can be watched, enjoyed, and understood with only half an eye while scrolling through Instagram, doing homework, or playing a game. Plus, Netflix will automatically play episodes back to back and skip the credits, freeing the viewer from having to tap any buttons to keep it on a loop – watching in and of itself is not a distraction or a chore. Plus, having something play on a loop can provide a sense of familiarity which is soothing and relaxing – an important quality in programming when a number of children admit that they have recently felt stressed about school work or worried / anxious.
6. Just some light relief
Friends is lighthearted and largely steers away from heavy issues, providing some light relief. Sure, over the course of the series issues such as divorce and infertility are touched on, but ‘issues’ are rarely explored in any depth, and always dealt with in humorous ways. The six friends of Friends seemingly almost never worry about ‘adult’ things like paying rent, keeping up with bills, and finding a job, and when they do, they are not insurmountable problems, but easily solved. Plus, they always have each other for support, a short-term loan, or a job opening to offer.
7. 90s nostalgia
The 90s are very much in fashion right now, driven in large part by millennial nostalgia, but certainly influencing youth pop culture from clothing (Mom jeans, chokers, crop tops) and footwear (“ugly shoes”, platforms, Fila trainers), to music, TV, and film whether it be genre trends (return of teen films and romcoms on Netflix), reunions, reboots or simply a return to screens by way of Netflix and other on demand services (e.g. Spice Girls, Full House/Fuller House, Sabrina the Teenage Witch / The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina etc.)
8. Aspirational fantasy
The six friends all live together in New York city, spend more time in a coffee shop than at work, and are for the most part, carefree with few responsibilities. While navigating the path to fully-fledged adulthood, trying to figure out who they are and what they want, they all seemingly have enough money (despite all those hours sipping coffee) to stand on their own two feet without much parental help. As others have pointed out, not only is this a fantasy in general terms, but in the present economic climate, this is perhaps more than ever an aspirational fantasy for many young people – in the world of Friends, there is no student debt, no steeply rising house prices, no moving back in with their parents after university, and no financial crash to contend with. Friends offers today’s teens a fantasy of what their 20s could have been in the not so distant past, a life to experience only vicariously through the characters, rather than a life to try to aspire to get for themselves.
9. Simple, innocent times
When Friends first aired, mobile phones were rare and the internet was in its infancy. Watching the series back in 2019, both of these things are conspicuous in their near total absence. The friends sit around and talk to each other face to face, they’re not embroiled in text conversations with other people in other places, but they’re present and in the moment with each other. They also don’t have to deal with all that today’s teens and twenty-somethings have to in a digital, always connected mobile age, namely social media and all the joys and difficulties that brings. There are plenty of teen-oriented shows that have explored the ruin and reality of the internet age and what it’s like growing up digital - Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl being the prime examples. Both series have been very popular with Netflix-watching teens in recent years, but they already know and live through the realities and pressures of social media. Friends is a safe, sheltered haven and escape from that gritty reality, a return to a more ‘innocent’ simpler time and likely appreciated for it.
10. Friendship and community
Recent CHILDWISE research has revealed that children today are feeling increasingly lonely, despite being the most digitally connected generation in history, perhaps spending more time texting their friends than spending actual time in each other’s (physical) company. The series’ focus on friendships and relationships may not only be relatable to teens, who are learning how to navigate their own friendships, but watching this group of close, albeit fictional, friends may give some teens a sense of connection – as though they themselves are part of the group. At times when they feel lonely, or have fallen out with a friend, feelings of inclusion and connection could be really important.
But, beyond connections with fictional characters, Friends may also be bringing viewers themselves together. For years, Gen Xers and Millennials have bonded over shared jokes and references from the series, while highly quotable lines and well-loved quotes have peppered their conversations provoking knowing smiles and sniggers from those in the know. In the age of streaming media, the rise of narrowcasting, and with ever increasing volumes of content across hundreds of channels, platforms, and websites, there are perhaps fewer opportunities for viewers to congregate around, and bond over, a must-watch TV series. But Friends may just be providing today’s teens with those opportunities for community and bonding – the jokes are still funny, the references still plentiful, and the dialogue still quotable, so why should it matter that it was broadcast so long ago?
The 2019 CHILDWISE Monitor is a comprehensive annual report looking at 5 to 16-year-olds media consumption, purchasing and social habits as well as key behaviour. More than 2000 children in schools across the United Kingdom completed in-depth online surveys for the report, which is now in its 25th year.