WHEN Friends vanished from Netflix in the US on Jan. 1, Amy Smeltzer was ready. She watches the old sitcom almost every day and just couldn’t wait until May for it to resurface on a new streaming service, HBO Max.
So a month ago, her husband began recording the episodes on cable TV. All 236 of them.
“It’s still funny to me, even as many times as I’ve seen it,” said Smeltzer, 33, who lives outside Atlanta. With the entire library on her DVR, “the only annoying part is the commercials.”
The show about six friends in Manhattan, which first aired in 1994, was one of the most popular programs on Netflix. Its departure has sent subscribers scrambling for other ways to watch. Google searches for “How to watch Friends” have spiked in the new year. Media outlets have published articles on where to find Friends. Many fans have turned to old-school technology, like cable or DVDs.
The plight of disgruntled Friends fans reflects the mixed blessings of the streaming era. It’s a paradise for TV junkies, with classic shows and hundreds of new series available at the click of a button. But with new streaming services coming online this year — leading to bidding wars for popular sitcoms — consumers will have to look harder to find their favorite programs and may be forced to buy additional subscriptions.
The cable networks TBS and Nick at Nite still air Friends. TBS saw a sevenfold increase in online viewing of the show last week. Nick at Nite saw Friends viewership rise 33% last week compared with the previous four weeks.
Friends is still streaming on Netflix outside the US, prompting international viewers to gloat on social media. The show itself is owned by Warner Bros., a division of AT&T Inc., which also owns TBS and the upcoming HBO Max.
“Enjoying every second in Brazil bc Friends is still on Netflix here,” one Twitter user said this week. “I don’t know what I’ll do when I go back to the US and have to figure out another way to watch it.”
Both TBS and Nick at Nite, owned by ViacomCBS Inc., will still have Friends after it begins streaming on HBO Max, which is paying $425 million over five years to Warner Bros. for the exclusive streaming rights. On the other hand, a five-month streaming blackout could boost interest in HBO Max among Friends fans who don’t get cable.
“Having exclusive content is very important,” said Amanda Lotz, a professor of media studies at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology. “But Friends has been around 25 years and is readily available. That’s what makes this case so unusual.”
The departure of Friends from Netflix shows how the balkanized world of streaming is sowing confusion among consumers. For decades, programs aired on broadcast channels and then moved to cable networks in syndication. Consumers never had to search beyond the channel guide.
Now, TV fans need to figure out which streaming services carry their favorite shows as rights are bought and sold, not to mention juggle multiple subscriptions. And because they expect to have their entertainment available at all times, the departure of programs on Netflix “feel like ruptures,” Lotz said.
Smeltzer said she was prepared to subscribe to NBCUniveral’s upcoming streaming service, Peacock, because she assumed Friends, which originally aired on NBC, would be there.
But after learning it won’t be, Smeltzer said she will probably subscribe to HBO Max. Her DVR is almost full from recording every episode.
“The subscriptions are getting out of control, but Friends is one of my favorite shows and I watch it every day so I’ll pay for it,” she said. — Bloomberg