NEW YORK — The Internet breathed a sigh of relief Monday when Netflix announced “Friends” would still be on the service in 2019.
After first noting that the landmark sitcom would be removed by Jan. 1, Netflix released a statement Monday afternoon that “The Holiday Armadillo has granted your wish: ‘Friends’ will still be there for you in the US throughout 2019,” referring to a one-off character. Netflix had renegotiated a deal with production outfit Warner Bros. and its parent company AT&T/WarnerMedia for domestic rights. The New York Times reported a price of $100 million — a whopping increase of $70 million from the current price.
And so it was that Joey will continue to ask how we’re doing while Chandler could not be any happier for the next calendar year.
But that sigh of relief could still yet turn into an anguished gasp for the many “Friends” fans out there.
Since Netflix began making “Friends” available in 2015, the show has been among the streaming service’s most popular. (At least anecdotally — Netflix releases data like Monica allows a dirty apartment.) And that means WarnerMedia, which has designs to launch its own streaming service next year, might well soon want the series for its own platform.
Might — it’s still not clear how this will all go. In fact, the whole affair could be a simple hiccup or a significant omen for content consumption in the years ahead, depending on the view one holds about the streaming landscape.
There are basically two ways to read Netflix’s “Friends” tango. The first is that Warner really doesn’t want to give up its golden ticket and would sooner keep collecting the sure millions for a library title (the industry’s euphemism for previously aired programming) than take a chance on putting an established hit on its own unproven streaming service.
According to this interpretation, the company really just wants to make enough noise to drive up the price third-party platforms pay; it doesn’t really want to pull the shows off these services. So this 2019 reprieve will be followed by more reprieves. “Friends” is safe on Netflix. And WarnerMedia’s own streaming efforts will be a business of largely lesser shows.
This view is articulated by the outspoken Wall Street analyst Rich Greenfield of BTIG, who in an interview with The Post on Tuesday described what he saw happening with WarnerMedia properties such as “Friends” and others of similar A-list ilk.
“Nobody with a legacy business to protect is going all-in on streaming — they’re simply too scared,” Greenfield said. “They want to play in the old world to keep revenue and profit, and play in the new world and appease Wall Street.”
“Friends,” in other words, will continue, because WarnerMedia doesn’t have the stomach to pull the series.
As evidence, this camp — call them the legacy-firsters — cites AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson, who at the UBS media conference here Tuesday said future deals wouldn’t necessarily be exclusive, and Warner would keep some “Friends” episodes (he didn’t say how or how many) on its service in addition to making them available on Netflix.
(Nonexclusive! Everybody wins! Except it’s not that simple — Netflix won’t pay as much for that and WarnerMedia might not think the lower fee rich enough to cut into its own “Friends”-driven subscriptions. But that’s another story.)
The second camp — call them the balkaniziers — believes Warner and other conglomerates mean business. This is the more conventional Wall Street view and basically holds that the largest companies, particularly Disney and WarnerMedia, are not messing around when it comes to streaming. They really want all content off outside platforms so they can build their own services and shift their model to direct-to-consumer. Content will thus balkanize to numerous distinct streaming platforms, with almost no overlap between them.
Michael Nathanson of MoffettNathanson is among the many who think we’re heading that way. “We believe we are witnessing the evolution in traditional media thinking about SVOD strategies,” he said last year, using the acronym for streaming services. These companies want to “recapture some of the value transfer that has shifted to Netflix,” he noted. Or, in nonanalyst-speak, “sell their shows directly to fans.”
Disney chief executive Robert Iger has been among the most vocal advocates from within the industry. Iger has spoken often about “weaning” his company off the licensing milk of outside streaming services so it can sell its own shows. 21st Century Fox, which Disney is set to purchase, has already pulled hits like “How I Met Your Mother” and “Family Guy” (two shows that have nearly as much playability as “Friends"). And don’t expect “Modern Family” or other Fox-produced hits there either.
Not to mention, eventually, its franchise movies. Disney wants its own streaming services — its family-oriented Disney+ and its more grown-up-minded Hulu — to be the repository for all these established hits.
The legacy-firsters see this and think Disney is the exception (and won’t go all in on streaming in any event). They point to Comcast and Viacom, two conglomerates that have gone much slower, for various reasons, and say not much will really change. They’re skeptical WarnerMedia’s blood is cold enough to give up all this revenue.
On the other hand, the balkanizers believe that many of the big conglomerates will soon be selling their own shows for a simple logical reason: Even if it means some licensing losses now, direct-to-consumer is the future. Disney and WarnerMedia, they argue, are doubling down. And even conservative players such as Comcast and Viacom will eventually find their own ways in, resulting in their hits pulled from outside services, too.
Which of these two camps' views come to pass will profoundly influence where we’ll get our content — and in turn whether many of us will think it worthwhile keeping Netflix.
If the legacy-firsters are right, then not much will change. Sure, original shows will eventually go to their respective platforms — Netflix shows on Netflix; Disney shows, such as Jon Favreau’s Star Wars series, on Disney; etc. (Netflix has in part been ramping up all its original shows in recent years in preparation for just this balkanization.) But we’ll still get a lot of library hits on these platforms. So, according to these folks, keep your Netflix subscription, beleaguered subscriber, for it has much of what you subscribed for. The service is the new cable, and will keep offering what cable has long offered us in its “bundle” — a wide variety of shows from multiple sources, all for one price.
But if the balkanizers are right, we’re headed to a very different world. A world where there isn’t one-stop shopping at all. You want to watch Disney content? You pay for Disney+ or Hulu. WarnerMedia series? Head to its service. Netflix shows? Go ahead, go to Netflix. But you won’t get much else. The biggest “Friends”-like hits, the ones you’re used to seeing there, are elsewhere. And that means we’ll either be paying for a lot of services or not getting much of what we want.
(It also means Netflix is going to have a lot of trouble holding on to its 57 million subscribers and spending the billions they currently do on content. But that’s another story, too.)
For now, the legacy-firsters hold sway, and we don’t have to pay for subscriptions all over the place to consume a wide swath of entertainment content. By 2020 or soon after, though, the balkanizers could be right. Streaming could fragment, much like cable did before it. The number of worthy services will multiply, but the amount of content on each will thin. In such a scenario, in other words, media could not be any more divided.