Sorry, Streamers: The Race to Snag Old Shows Leads Nowhere

Reruns of Friends and The Office have been a phenomenon for Netflix, but they aren't a lock to attract subscribers in the coming streaming wars.

Earlier this week HBO Max shelled out $600 million for the privilege of streaming The Big Bang Theory.Photograph: Sonja Flemming/Getty Images

The most surprising news to emerge this week from the world of streaming wasn't that NBCUniversal would be calling its forthcoming service Peacock. Or that Peacock would be rebooting Punky Brewster and Saved by the Bell. No, it was that HBO Max had shelled out $600 million for the privilege of streaming The Big Bang Theory when the platform launches next spring. Not that anyone should be surprised. Since summer began, streaming services have been jockeying for the exclusive rights to legacy shows, particularly long-running network sitcoms—and the TV turf wars are only just beginning.

First, WarnerMedia, which owns HBO Max, spent $425 million for five years of Friends. Then NBCUniversal ponied up $500 million for a similar run with The Office. Just like that, Netflix's two most-streamed shows of 2018 vanished. To fill the void, Netflix itself snatched Seinfeld away from Hulu for somewhere north of $500 million—just a touch more than the $160 million Hulu had paid for those rights in 2015. That was Monday; yesterday, NBCUniversal revealed that Parks & Recreation would also come to Peacock for an undisclosed, but almost certainly nine-figure, amount. Then the Big Bang news.

All together now: Bazinga!

But the only thing new about this is the platform. Syndication deals, the agreements by which networks secure the rights to air reruns, have long been a source of gargantuan payouts: In the 21 years since it went off the air, Seinfeld has pulled in more than $3 billion from such deals. Yet, spurred on by what happened at Netflix with Friends and The Office, nearly every streaming service has become convinced that legacy shows are key to its library. These acquisitions are only part of the massive outlay platforms are making; nine-figure deals have also become common for A-list creators like Shonda Rhimes and J.J. Abrams, as well as shows like Amazon's Lord of the Rings prequel. Yet, they're the strongest evidence yet that the streaming wars are splintering the landscape into something that looks a lot like cable used to—and that the people writing checks might be overvaluing nostalgia.

Squint just right and you can see a couple of questionable assumptions at work here. The first is that the millions of people who watched Friends and The Office will immediately flock to follow those shows to a new destination. That framing casts reruns as appointment TV, which … well, which it very much is not. You don't watch Friends because you heard people talking about a great new show; you watch it because you already know every episode and sometimes you just need to see Ross make a pair of paste pants. (Or count Mississippily. Or find some unfortunate baloney. GODDAMMIT ROSS, I HAVE OTHER SHOWS I NEED TO WATCH.)

That's not to say a new generation of viewers can't discover an old show, but (a) that new generation of viewers isn't making the financial decisions in a household, and (b) if those new viewers are young adults living on their own, chances are they've got other priorities than adding new streaming services to their entertainment budget. Oh, and one more: (c) Thanks to Hulu or YouTube TV or Philo any other streaming service that delivers live TV, those reruns aren't exactly tough to come by.

Then there's the question of what people streaming 52 billion minutes of The Office—or 32 billion of Friends, or 30 billion of Grey's Anatomy, or any of the other legacy broadcast shows that constituted eight of the 10 most-streamed shows on Netflix last year—even means. It's not that these are a better investment than finding the next House of Cards, it's that Netflix's greenlight-everything approach to programming has effectively turned it into a Blockbuster rather than a blockbuster. Confronted with a sea of new shows and "fine TV," people have given up on a new niche show everyone will enjoy, and defaulted to something they can consume more passively.

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Yet, when HBO Max announced the Big Bang Theory Deal, chief content officer Kevin Reilly perpetuated that false equivalence. "It's not every day you get to extend the run of a cultural phenomenon that reaches nearly 35 million viewers on TBS alone every month," he said. Yes, that show has done spooky good numbers for years—as a two-hour block of episodes that airs without fail between 8 and 10 pm. Those numbers are likely to continue on cable; on streaming, though, its success isn't quite as assured.

Especially when the streaming landscape increasingly comes to resemble cable. Congratulations for cutting the cord—you're saving as much as 100 bucks a month! Good thing Netflix is only $13. And Hulu is $5 … unless you want to get rid of the ads. Or get the news channels and other live-TV networks you were missing before. That'll be $45 or so. But wait: Hulu doesn't have Viacom networks like VH1 or Comedy Central, so you're gonna need Philo for that. Oh, and don't forget another $15 for HBO! We could go on, but you get the point.

A recent report from financial services company UBS found that only 13 percent of survey participants would pay for more than three subscription services. In a world where Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have a significant first-to-market advantage, and Disney and Apple are launching their own vaunted services in 2019, HBO Max and Peacock are going to need to shake some serious tailfeather in order to stand out. Decade-old shows make for unmatchable comfort viewing—but when ever-proliferating platforms make for ever-harder choices, the question remains whether the plumage is colorful enough to attract subscribers.


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