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The fight to keep Friends on Netflix is about so much more than Friends

The fight to keep Friends on Netflix is about so much more than Friends
[Photo: Flickr user Pat Guiney]

The growing complexities of the streaming wars, and what they will mean for consumers, came into view this week when WarnerMedia reportedly reached an agreement with Netflix to keep the (still) popular sitcom Friends on its streaming service while also allowing it to be available on WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming apps, which are set to launch in late 2019.  

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WarnerMedia’s strategy boils down to wanting to have its cake and eat it, too. Netflix, after all, pays a hefty sum for the licensing rights to Friends, which is a top performer on the service. In 2014, when Netflix first bought those rights, it paid $500,000 an episode. Granted, that fee will diminish once the show isn’t exclusive to the platform, but WarnerMedia clearly doesn’t want to give up a significant revenue stream from Netflix. And in the meantime, it’s reportedly squeezing $100 million out of Netflix to allow the company to have Friends for one last exclusive year, in 2019. 

The strategy is in contrast with that of Disney’s, which is making content on its own entertainment streaming app Disney+, also due out next year, entirely exclusive. To that end, it is wrapping up its lucrative licensing deal with Netflix in order to make its Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and Disney Animation titles (as well as all kinds of original content) only available on one streaming product: Disney’s. 

The Disney app will be all about bejeweled brands in a you-can-only-get-this-here setting. CEO and chairman Bob Iger has said that the service’s TV shows and movies will be presented in separate categories: Marvel, Star Wars, etc. Whereas Randall Stephenson, chief executive of WarnerMedia parent AT&T, puts the emphasis on getting content out to as many people as possible. In November, speaking at the Wall Street Journal’s Tech D.Live conference, he said, “‘[W]hen you have premium content, distribution is everything. And broad and wide distribution is something I feel very strongly about . . . do I care if Friends is shown on Netflix and on a WarnerMedia SVOD service? Probably not.”   

Granted, Disney can afford to cling more devoutly to exclusivity, given how many beloved brands it has under its umbrella, and how faithfully they all adhere to the same family-friendly category. With HBO, Warner Bros., and TBS, WarnerMedia’s content is a bit more diffuse. But given the growing competition in streaming—Apple is also getting into the game, and Netflix and Amazon are upping their content spending—it’s curious that WarnerMedia doesn’t want to differentiate itself more emphatically with TV shows and movies that can only be seen in one place. If you’re a Friends fan who already has Netflix, what’s the incentive to add on another subscription service just to get more of the same?   

And no one should underestimate the passion of Friends fans. Over the weekend, when the show’s Netflix page was updated to say it would be leaving the service at the end of the year, complaints raged on Twitter and other social media sites. 

Adding to the complexity is that despite WarnerMedia’s stance on Friends, the company’s chief executive, John Stankey, has also said that WarnerMedia shows will indeed migrate back from other streaming platforms once WarnerMedia launches its apps. Last week he said to analysts, “Some of the incumbents should expect that their libraries are going to become a lot thinner.” 

So what does this mean for consumers? Mainly, that they’ll have to do their homework to figure out what services have what content, and that curating television is about to get a whole lot harder.  

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