What makes Friends worth $100 million?

Ryan Neely, Guest Reporter

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For a while in early December, it looked like Friends was en route to leave Netflix. For most multiple-decade old sitcoms, this would not cause much of a stir. Friends, however, is a unique case. A social media frenzy ensued. The millennial demographic in particular was quite attached to this show, in a manner only few could match. The media took notice. It started out in the typical entertainment news outlets, but soon technology news, financial news, and even even general news took notice.

The pressure was building. What would the shareholders think?, the executives must have wondered. Then, they did what all modern businesses do when faced with a difficult decision. They caved.

According to The New York Times, Netflix paid “around $100 million” (up from $30 million last year) to keep the show. The message was clear: Friends is not just a sitcom, it is a cultural phenomenon. This observation, however, raises a question. Just how does a sitcom become so deeply entrenched in the zeitgeist, defining even generations that weren’t born prior to its first airing?

One show not able to achieve this feat was Arrested Development, a sitcom that first ran in 2003 on Fox to little fanfare. It was a sitcom about a the family of a corrupt real-estate developer that was imprisoned for “light treason”, and how the main character, the hardworking Michael Bluth, clashed with his lazy, entitled, and eccentric family over how to run the business. Unlike the trite and forgettable stories and gags from Friends, Arrested Development displayed an avant-garde cleverness throughout, blending the intertwining plotlines of each family member into a rich overarching narrative that kept the viewer guessing, and more importantly, laughing, throughout (which was quite important, as Arrested Development lacked a laugh track, a quality quite unique for its day).

It would be generous to say that the public forgot about Arrested Development, as that would imply that it had paid attention to it in the first place. It was cancelled after three seasons, left to fade into obscurity. The internet, however, has a much better memory. Slowly but surely, the show saw its way into nerd culture, being seen as a bit of a hidden gem, though still not exploding in popularity

Back in 2011, before Netflix was the behemoth they are today, they took notice. They struck a deal to produce a fourth season of the show, eventually released in 2013. This revival was critically panned, deservedly so. This new season had very little of the wit of those preceding it. However, this can be easily ignored. The original three season run already had a satisfying ending that wrapped up virtually all of its loose ends, so it could easily stand on its own.

Arrested Development is technically still running, with the second half of the (equally abysmal) fifth season yet to come (likely delayed due to an on-set harassment scandal), but even then, Friends still gets more attention.

Quality does not a make a show successful. Marketability does. Friends follows the cookie cutter formula that was is vogue at the time (pioneered by Seinfeld), adds in some “relatable” characters (in the form of tired archetypes) and some cheesy relationship drama, and calls it a day. It allows people to feel good without having to go through the trouble of actually thinking. Many of the subtle rapid-fire jokes and obscure cultural references from Arrested Development may go over viewers’ heads. Not so with Friends.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean that all of the people watching Friends instead of Arrested Development are dumb. To have a cultural impact requires broad appeal, meaning the show is required to suit the lowest common denominator. When the people who first saw the premiere of Friends recommended it to others, the chance of them having their minds blown by it were small, but the chances of them not understanding it were almost non-existent. For a person without an encyclopedic knowledge of their options for what their options were on TV (that being most people, especially in 1994), Friends would seem perfectly adequate. This allowed it to spread in what AP Human Geography students would call “contagious diffusion”, in such a way that a show with more specific appeal never could.

That same logic applies to those streaming classic shows. Even though consumers have much more options, they are realistically not going to sample the entire Netflix catalogue, and if they do select Arrested Development out of pure curiosity, the first few minutes are not likely to hook them, as its brand of dry humor takes a bit of getting used to. They may, in fact, not even realize that it is supposed to be a comedy before losing interest. Friends, however, makes all of the designated jokes abundantly clear to the audience from the outset with its laugh track and exaggerated comedic delivery.

Arrested Development’s existence is a is a tragic one. Many of its potential fans will probably never see it. If they did, then it would certainly be a household name. Unfortunately though, the quality of a product does not determine its value. The amount that it can sell for does. Friends isn’t a valuable sitcom. It’s a valuable product.