They’re on a streaming break — but “Friends” will still be there for you. WarnerMedia’s home entertainment division is aiming to capitalize on the brief disappearance of the hit sitcom from streaming video on demand, as fans look for other ways to get their “Friends” fix.
Repeats of the wildly popular laffer, which ran for 10 seasons on NBC, were anecdotally among the most-binged shows on Netflix before the series left the streaming service at the end of 2019. Soon, it will be one of the centerpieces of WarnerMedia’s HBO Max service, when that streamer launches in May. Meanwhile, the only way to binge multiple episodes at once (and commercial-free) is via DVD, Blu-ray or digital download.
The streaming hiatus already appears to be paying off for Warner Bros. Home Entertainment: According to senior vice president of TV marketing Rosemary Markson, sales of both physical and digital copies of “Friends” have “roughly tripled” since it was announced last year that the show would be exiting Netflix.
“At the beginning of the year, it was the top-selling catalog-TV franchise in home entertainment,” Markson says. “We were seeing strong sales across both physical and digital, and we’ve seen a particularly strong uptick in digital. If you think of DVDs as the original bingeing mechanism, it’s a way to collect and adds permanence and repeatability to be able to watch the show.”
Data from retail tracking service NPD VideoScan reveals that after the announcements that “Friends” and “The Office” would disappear from Netflix (the latter series at the end of 2020) and move to streaming sites HBO Max and Peacock, respectively, disc sales for both complete series skyrocketed: Physical sales spiked in July and remained high through the end of the year.
“The only way to guarantee evergreen access to content is through ownership, and that message needs to be reinforced to the public,” says Kathi Chandler-Payatt, executive director for the media entertainment practice at The NPD Group. “Although platform-owned titles may or will be held back for exhibition on the distributor’s platform, and audiences may know where to find the content, there’s no guarantee that the content will always be available.”
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment launched a new “Friends” website last year timed to the 25th anniversary of the show, and took part in the cross-promotional push around the show, certain that demand would spike during its streaming hiatus.
“I know a lot of fans were upset when it exited Netflix, so we wanted to make sure that fans know where to find ‘Friends,’” Markson says. “We’re looking at a broad-based marketing and publicity plan to get the word out and to continue to drive sales around the franchise.” Markson notes that promotional activities with regional partners have already started, and media buys will begin in the next several months. “We’ll have media running as well as a lot of different promotional activities with our regional partners that’s already started but you’ll see in the next several months… we still think there’s an opportunity to continue to educate consumers and point them in the direction of where they can find ‘Friends,’” she says.
For fans interested in buying all 10 seasons of the show, the Blu-ray version costs $94.93 and the DVD is $54.99 on Amazon. On iTunes, the full collection is $139.99.
According to Chandler-Payatt, total disc sales in fiscal year 2019 declined 22% in units and 20% in revenue, but declines for TV shows were smaller (16%), and helped by “Game of Thrones” (which was up 52% in units), the “Yellowstone” series and complete series of other popular catalog titles. Digital sales, meanwhile, were up 5% in 2019 — buoyed by theatrical titles.
The home entertainment industry, both physical and digital, has taken a hit in the era of streaming services. But as the streaming landscape becomes more competitive, and consumers start to question how many subscriptions they’ll pay for, there’s an opportunity for the home entertainment segment to sell itself as the most effective way to hold on to TV series and movies for repeat binges.
“Studios need to manage the balance of offering compelling content on their individual streaming services without extremely cannibalizing home entertainment revenue,” said IHS Markit Technology analyst Sarah Henschel, who suggests that Warner Bros. start promoting “‘Friends’ ownership” on digital retail platforms. “Increased streaming competition is the perfect opportunity to remind customers of traditional home entertainment value. We find that the majority of consumers view content through living room devices, so studios should continue to push placements through smart TVs, digital media adaptors, and games consoles… There is a general concern over the future of home entertainment in the new streaming world, but it also offers great opportunity if messaged properly.”
Once “Friends” returns on streaming via HBO Max, Markson says she hopes the company continues to find the right balance between the two platforms. “We do feel transactional and streaming can coexist,” she says.