“Friends” by Warner Bros is just about as old as I am. The day it ended, I was 11, preparing to graduate fifth grade—still too young to actually watch the show (with permission, at least). This week marks the 15th anniversary of that finale, which drew north of 52 million viewers. It happens to coincide with the release of data illustrating just how large “Friends” continues to loom over our culture, 25 years after it began.
In researching the finale’s ratings, I stumbled across an amusing New York Times report. Two paragraphs in particular stand out, a snapshot of a time when the tremors before the streaming earthquake were really starting to rumble, attributed here to the “scores of new cable channels.” The focus on unscripted programming and declines since “Seinfeld” are especially noteworthy (emphasis added):
‘Friends’ eclipsed every other entertainment show since 1998, including the annual telecasts of Academy Awards and the finales of big reality shows like ‘American Idol.’ It even nosed out the most-watched reality show finale, the last episode of the original ‘Survivor’ on CBS four years ago, which brought in 51.7 million viewers.
Even though the numbers for ‘Friends’ were a steep falloff from ‘Seinfeld’ just six years ago, network ratings, even for hit shows, are well below what they used to be. The share of the overall audience watching the four networks has continued to drop each year because of scores of new cable channels.
Change was very much afoot. For instance, to use the Times’ benchmarks, in 1998, the year of “Titanic,” the Oscars pulled in a record 55.25 million viewers. By 2004, that was down to 43.5 million. (They drew less than 30 million this year.) The explosion in alternative options was already underway, and the networks were feeling it. Now, of course, they’re really feeling it.