Reaction to Matthew Perry’s Death Shows Enduring Popularity of ‘Friends’


“Friends” concluded its 10-season run nearly two decades ago.

But like other classic sitcoms, including “Seinfeld” and “The Big Bang Theory,” it continues to dazzle television executives with its enduring popularity, even among younger viewers.

This was further underscored by the emotional outpouring after Matthew Perry, one of the six main cast members, died on Saturday at 54. The next day, “Friends” was the most-watched series or movie on the Max streaming service, according to a spokesman for the company.

In a way, this was no anomaly. “Friends” has been a weekly fixture among the 10 most-watched series or movies on the streaming service since it was launched in May 2020 as HBO Max, the spokesman said.

Flip on cable or local television at any point in the day and the show is hard to miss. “Friends” airs on more than 100 local television stations and provides a backbone to both the TBS and the Nickelodeon cable networks. On Monday, for instance, “Friends” aired 12 times on TBS, for a total of six hours. Between the two networks, the sitcom airs up to 140 times a week, said a spokesman for Warner Bros., the studio that produced the show. For context: There were 236 episodes of “Friends” in total.

“Friends” was a force when it was on the air from 1994 to 2004. It was a top 10 show for NBC every year, averaging 25 million viewers a week, and was the No. 1 comedy for six consecutive years. The “Friends” series finale attracted 52.5 million viewers, trailing only the finales for “M*A*S*H” (106 million), “Cheers” (80.4 million) and “Seinfeld” (76.3 million).

But the show seemed to find new life after it began streaming on Netflix in 2015. Suddenly, a show that was born in the 1990s and seemed completely of-its-time (no cellphones, a coffee shop with cushy couches as a main setting) seemed to have new appeal among teenagers and 20-somethings.

“The one-sentence pitch is: It’s about that time in your life when your friends are your family,” David Crane, one of the show’s creators, once said.

In 2016, as the so-called Peak TV era was climbing toward its apex and Hollywood studios were producing more than 400 original scripted shows a year, the entertainment website Vulture posed a question: “Is ‘Friends’ Still the Most Popular Show on TV?”

Netflix once paid Warner Bros. $30 million a year to stream it. When the show’s streaming rights were up for grabs in late 2018, Netflix re-upped for another year. The price tag: $100 million.

In 2020, Netflix lost the rights to the series to HBO Max. And in preparation for the streaming service’s debut, executives did not commission a new “Game of Thrones” spinoff, a “Sex and the City” sequel or a “Sopranos” prequel movie — those would come later. Instead, a 104-minute “Friends” reunion special was ordered up.

On Sunday, the day after Mr. Perry’s death, “Friends” had its highest one-day viewership totals on Max since the reunion special was released two and a half years ago, the spokesman for Max said.


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