More than 15 years have passed since Ross, Rachel, Joey, Chandler, Phoebe and Monica said goodbye to their gargantuan apartment in the series finale of Friends in 2004. But it seems like the 90s-era sitcom has been part of the zeitgeist more in recent years than ever before.
That’s partly because Friends celebrated its 25th anniversary last fall. There were Central Perk pop-ups in New York City and Los Angeles. Movie theaters across the US hosted special screenings to commemorate the show. One day late last September, there were even 25 Phoebe Buffay lookalikes running around Manhattan singing “Smelly Cat” in a flash mob.
Friends’ enduring popularity has more to do with Netflix than anything else, however. For the last five years, the streaming service has been the go-to place to binge the series. Once part of NBC’s “Must See TV” lineup, now Friends is nostalgic comfort entertainment. They’re the familiar faces people turn to after a draining day at the office or before they hit the sack. Thanks to how easy the streaming era now makes it to discover and fall in love with older shows, some of today’s biggest Friends fans weren’t even alive when the show was on the air.
Netflix paid handsomely for the right to stream Friends. In late 2018, when astute Netflix subscribers noticed the show was listed as only available till January 1, 2019, it kicked off a panicked frenzy of Friends fans worried they’d lose access to their favorite show. The freakout prompted Netflix to renegotiate its licensing deal with Friends parent company WarnerMedia, and the streaming giant wound up paying $100 million to secure its rights to the show for an additional year. Netflix had previously paid $30 million a year for Friends.
As of two days ago, however, Netflix and Friends are finally on a break. At the stroke of midnight, all 236 episodes of the popular sitcom vanished from the streaming site. Friends is currently in streaming limbo until the spring, when it’ll join the lineup of WarnerMedia’s own platform HBO Max. Till then, the only legal way to watch the series is by buying it on DVD or through digital stores like iTunes, Amazon or Google Play.
The bidding wars over beloved TV classics are heating up, as more and more streaming services enter the crowded space, and HBO Max seems to be cleaning up. In addition to Friends, it’ll have exclusivity over The Big Bang Theory and South Park. One win for Netflix was securing the rights to Seinfeld, which will move from Hulu to Netflix sometime in 2021.
What Friends’ departure from Netflix means is that the show will be a little less ubiquitous for a while, which might not be the worst thing. Back in the olden days, if you missed an episode of your favorite show, there was no telling how long you’d have to wait to catch a rerun. But it also made watching TV feel like a special event, instead of a way to kill time. At least this time, Friends fans know how long they’ll have to wait till it’s available again.
“The good news is it’s coming back. It’s not off [streaming] forever,” Marta Kauffman, the co-creator of Friends, told the Los Angeles Times. “Hang in there for five more months.”