'Friends' - A Timeline of Obscene Profitability
Why Thursday's 'Friends' reunion special on HBO Max is just one stop on a very long, very lucrative, never-ending continuum that may never be duplicated in the video business
With the long-delayed Friends cast reunion finally posting on HBO Max Thursday, part of the overall $425 million pocket-to-pocket deal WarnerMedia signed with itself in 2019 to move streaming rights for the classic comedy series from Netflix to its own SVOD platform, we wondered, just how much has this show made for its networks, studio, producers, distributors, talent, and various adjacent industries, since it launched 27 years ago?
That number has to be in the tens of billions of dollars. But outside the bowels of WarnerMedia’s accounting firm, it’s difficult to get a more precise estimate.
To loosely quote the Rembrandts, their lives might be jokes. Their love lives might be DOA. But none of the principals involved with Friends are still broke. Call this episode "The One Where Their Individual Wealth Is Starting to Exceed the GDP of Small Island Nations."
Here are 10 of the show’s most profitable moments:
May 18, 1994 — The first season finale episode, “The One Where Rachel Finds Out,” averages a season-high 31.3 million viewers. The performance showcased significant audience growth over the Friends pilot, which debuted on NBC eight months earlier to around 22 million viewers, and solidified the Warner Bros. series’ status as a top 10 show and staple in NBC’s emerging “Must See TV” lineup. The core cast members, Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc, are each making around $22,500 an episode at this point.
April 28, 1995 — Friends debuts as an immediate hit on Channel 4 in the UK, beginning an international distribution revenue stream that has reaped unspecified billions of dollars. The comedy is such a smash that even its title song, The Rembrandt’s “I’ll Be There for You,” hits No. 3 on the UK singles charts.
January 28, 1996 — The hourlong season two episode “The One After the Super Bowl," featuring guest stars Brooke Shields, Chris Isaak, Julia Roberts, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Fred Willard and Dan Castellaneta, averages a Super Bow-like audience of nearly 53 million viewers, according to Nielsen. At this point, the six core cast members are making different rates — between $20,000 - $40,000 per episode. But they begin collective bargaining in season three, when they each take home $75,000 per installment. By seasons seven and eight, they’re each earning $750,000 per episode. And it's not long after that their paychecks reach $1 million per.
September 1998 — Friends debuts in broadcast syndication, fetching Warner Bros. TV $4 million per episode in fees. Warner Bros. later signs a pocket-to-pocket, $1 million-per-installment cable deal with erstwhile parent company AOL Time Warner’s Turner Networks. Friends debuts on TBS in the fall of 2001.
April 30, 2002 — Warner Home Video debuts the complete first season DVD compilation of Friends. Over the next decade, the studio will release all 10 seasons, plus complete series iterations, on discs. Seasons 1 and 2, as well as the complete series, are available in Blu-ray collections, too. With Friends taking a streaming pause between the time it left Netflix at the end of 2019 and the launch of HBO Max on May 27, 2020, Variety reported that uptake of the $94.93 full-series Blu-ray collection, and the $54.99 DVD iteration, surged.
December 22, 2002 — NBC agrees to pay $10 million per episode, $180 million total, for a 10th and final season of Friends. The Friends cast members, again bargaining collectively, agree to keep their rates at $1 million per episode. Paying high salaries to the six core cast members, while also compensating creator/EPs Marta Kaufman and David Krane, drives production cost to around $9 million - $10 million per episode, according to Variety. But Warner Bros. is just happy it doesn’t have to deficit finance a cash cow that’s already hugely profitable in the aftermarkets.
October 15, 2014 - Netflix signs a four-year, $120 million deal to become the exclusive streaming home for all 236 episodes of Friends. Later, to extend the deal to a fifth and final year (2019), Netflix paid WarnerMedia another $80 million.
February 27, 2015 — USA Today reports that Friends, which is entering its fourth broadcast syndication contract cycle, is still generating $1 billion a year in revenue for the erstwhile Time Warner Inc. Indeed, a 20-year-old property, that had been off network TV for more than a decade, made around 4% of the media conglomerate’s total revenue for 2015. The core cast members, who each smartly negotiated a 2% stake in the aftermarket bounty, take home $20 million a year.
July 9, 2019 — WarnerMedia announces that it will take back exclusive Friends streaming rights from Netflix and make the series a lynchpin on its own soon-to-launch subscription video-on-demand platform, HBO Max, in a pocket-to-pocket distribution deal valued at $425 million. In the run-up to the May 27, 2020 launch of HBO Max, Friends will serve as a core asset in its marketing collateral.
May 27, 2021 — Friends central cast members were each paid between $2.5 million - $4 million, depending on which Hollywood trade media report you believe, to participate in a Friends cast reunion on HBO Max, debuting on the one-year anniversary of the platform’s launch.
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Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!