The age of comfort TV: why people are secretly watching Friends and The Office on a loop

We are in an era of ‘prestige television’, with unprecedented choice and quality. So why are so many of us streaming endless reruns of 90s sitcoms?

In the opening episode of Netflix’s animated Hollywood satire BoJack Horseman, the eponymous steed gives a drunken speech about Horsin’ Around, the (fictional) feelgood sitcom that made him a star in the 90s. “For a lot of people, life is just one long, hard kick in the urethra,” he says. “And sometimes, when you get home from a long day of getting kicked in the urethra, you just want to watch a show about good, likable people who love each other – where no matter what happens, at the end of 30 minutes, everything’s gonna turn out OK.”

BoJack Horseman is a rare thing on Netflix in that it is a) original, b) critically adored and c) extremely popular. It is the 15th-most-viewed Netflix show in the US, according to the analytics firm Jumpshot (one of the best guides to what is popular on the platform, as Netflix doesn’t release stats).

But cast your eyes up that list and there are far more Horsin’ Arounds than there are BoJack Horsemans. The most popular show is the US version of The Office, which ran for nine series on the US channel NBC in the 00s. Friends, the archetypal feelgood 90s sitcom (iffy sexual politics notwithstanding), is the second-most-streamed show on the platform – this week, a former employee of Robert De Niro’s production company was alleged in its court claim to have watched 55 episodes of it in one four-day period. No wonder Netflix is believed to have paid WarnerMedia $100m ($85m) to license the show for 2019.

Gilmore Girls, Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development and Frasier also appear high on the list, more prominent than heralded Netflix Originals, such as Stranger Things, House of Cards or The Crown (reportedly the most expensive TV show ever made).

Gilmore Girls … Huge hit in the streaming era.
Gilmore Girls … Huge hit in the streaming era. Photograph: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

It seems that, in this time of unprecedented choice and quality, the so-called golden age of prestige television, most of us still want to watch half-hour shows about vaguely likable people in which everything turns out OK. Ideally from the 90s, but maybe the 00s. And preferably something that we have seen many, many times before. Welcome to the age of non-event TV.

“Over the past month or so, I have been watching as much Modern Family as possible,” says Ciaran, 29, who works as a policy analyst in London. “I’ve seen them all loads of times, but I just don’t feel like watching anything else because I love the warmth and comfort that comes from the show. I think I started watching it again when I was going through a particularly bad time at work. I got addicted to the warmth, and then I got addicted to just feeling good about myself.”

Lucy, 28, from London, feels the same about Gilmore Girls. The kooky comedy-drama never drew sky-high ratings when it aired on US cable TV between 2000 and 2007, but it has become a huge hit in the streaming era. (Netflix did deign to reveal a couple of years ago that it was its “most binge-raced” show – consumed in its entirety within 24 hours of appearing on the service.) “I rewatch it when I’m stressed as low-level distraction, but also to return to reassuring worlds with low jeopardy and known outcomes,” says Lucy.

Sometimes, she has it on in the background while she does housework or lets Netflix autoplay her to sleep. Lucy says she still likes to watch the prestige shows that everyone is talking about – but they’re a bit like haute cuisine to Gilmore Girls’ pasta. “I find it more relaxing to rewatch, as I don’t have to join in on the hot takes and social threads that surround the ‘big new series’ or worry about spoilers,” she says. “I can create a little bubble and totally tune out.”

It has often been observed that the emergence of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Now TV, Hulu, Facebook TV and the rest has opened up frontiers for TV – makers don’t have to worry so much about averting flagging ratings when viewers start losing interest. Now that we can consume series at our own pace, our tolerance for convoluted narrative arcs, enormous casts and season-long digressions has increased hugely. There’s lots of Silicon Valley cash to bankroll the programmes, too. But while dinner party chat still centres on Russian Doll and Big Little Lies, platforms are increasingly thinking about the other stuff: the chewing-gum TV, the long-tail TV, the shows that vaguely brighten up the room. That could be a random episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that turns into a weekend-long binge, or it may be mid-00s cookery flotsam, middlebrow property porn or makeover TV detritus.

Just one more … The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Just one more … The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Photograph: NBC via Getty Images

Matthew Ball, a US venture capitalist and sharp commentator on the streaming platforms, calls it “tonnage”. For him, the idea that it is “quality” driving the shift to streaming is a misconception. “Netflix’s biggest shows drove subscriber growth and branding, but most of its success comes from enabling audiences to easily watch large volumes of all types of content wherever they are, without fail, and at a low cost,” he says. “Netflix isn’t ‘hired’ for Stranger Things, but for entertainment at large.”

Tonnage is increasingly where the platforms are focusing their algorithms and cash as the attention wars escalate. Netflix is likely to lose Friends and the US version of The Office – a combined 400-plus episodes of non-event TV – as WarnerMedia and NBC, their owners, launch their own streaming platforms at some point in the next couple of years. Apple is due to launch a streaming service in the autumn, and has lobbed a reported $6bn at new programmes (including a drama starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston as warring TV hosts). But, although audiences come for the shiny new stuff, they stay for the old reliables such as Seinfeld, over which there is a bidding war. Disney+ is launching in the autumn – and because Disney owns the Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel franchises, that is a lot of “tonnage”.

Ball reckons Netflix would have achieved similar levels of success with or without Friends – but he stresses that Netflix is popular for precisely the same reasons that Friends is popular. It’s just easy to watch. “Netflix’s delivery innovations have made it so easy to discover and watch content that whole generations, who would never have watched Friends or Golden Girls via occasional reruns on random TV networks, are devouring them.” There is something novel about watching a season of Friends in sequential order, as opposed to a mishmash of repeats and missed episodes. A semi-forgotten series such as Frasier, meanwhile, can find new life in the streaming era as a meme trove.

All this presents an additional challenge to the traditional channels, as the new Ofcom statistics reveal. The average British person watches nearly five hours of video a day, on TVs, laptops, phones and the rest. Live TV remains dominant – on average, we watch two hours and 43 minutes a day – but other means are catching up, including recorded playback (30 minutes), streaming services (26 minutes) and YouTube not on a TV (34 minutes).

We may no longer be content to settle for random reruns on regular channels, but according to the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (Barb) – which has collated viewing-hours data since 1992 – it’s not vastly more than we used to watch. Twenty-five years ago, we were still watching close to four hours of broadcast TV each a day, and that wasn’t counting satellite and cable – nor hours spent watching old VHS tapes.

The high numbers make more sense when you consider how people actually use their TVs. In the 90s, my family TV set would usually be switched on from between 4pm and 11pm every day, and I don’t think we were unusual. My little sister watched cartoons after school, and my older sister and I would then commandeer the remote for Home and Away and Neighbours. The early evening news would play to an empty room while we ate dinner, then the whole family would gather for Top of the Pops or EastEnders. A lot of the time, the TV would be on in the background while housework or homework was done, a bit like how I have the radio on most of the time in my kitchen now. Or how many teenagers let YouTubers autoplay in their bedrooms.

As Ball says, this sort of TV consumption hasn’t really changed – it has just got more efficient. “Millions are still watching TV this way, just with Netflix and Hulu,” he says. “The major platforms are increasingly interested in how to facilitate this. Hulu just rolled out a ‘play random episode’ feature and Pluto TV has a programming schedule [that replicates broadcast]: you tune in and just surf as you would a TV. Audiences still like this.” The major innovation is that while the particular lineup of non-event TV used to be chosen by broadcasters, now we choose it ourselves, a bit like we choose the screensavers on our laptops. Mostly, what we want humming away is something pleasant and recognisable that won’t disturb us too much as we tweet, defrost, respond to WhatsApp threads, compare car insurance quotes and whatever else as we “double-screen” our laptops and our phones.

Seetal, 38, from north London, lists Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Brooklyn 99 and Two and a Half Men, as well as Nigel Slater’s and Rick Stein’s cookery programmes as being among her favourite non-event TV shows. “They’re familiar, and that’s a source of comfort in itself. There’s a heavy dose of nostalgia. And you know what’s going to happen.” Sometimes, we watch TV because we want to be gripped and amazed, but mostly because we want to be soothed and cheered. Personally, I’m a little dystopia’d out at the moment, and slightly weary of portentous prestige dramas that only really get going in the third series; I’m always more keen to be recommended a 25-minute sitcom that I won’t find annoying than I am some nasty bit of true crime.

Let’s stream some Friends … The Big Bang Theory.
Let’s stream some Friends … The Big Bang Theory. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Helen Sneha Jambunathan, a behavioural analyst for the market research company Canvas8, sees such choices as an inevitable – when many of us face increasing levels of stress and anxiety, “the lure of vegging out is undeniable”, she says. “Easy-to-consume media let people switch off in a way that’s simply not possible when fully focused or even just daydreaming. It provides the same effect as carrying out manual work or exercising – your consciousness has something to focus on, while the rest of you truly gets to rest.” You could call it mindful mindlessness.

But with a few exceptions, such as the cheerfully uncomplicated Brooklyn 99, they don’t really make sitcoms like Friends or Horsin’ Around any more. Jambunathan reckons the popularity of 90s and 00s shows in particular speaks to endemic loneliness among younger generations – a yearning for a more innocent time. “We often think of elderly people relying on TV for companionship, but younger people do it, too,” she says. “A lot of the less prestigious TV shows contain familiar characters in stories that we can easily pop in and out of, just as we would with friends and family in the real world.”

For Emma, 34, a freelance events designer from Margate, the absence of unexpected twists is what draws her back to her favourites: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Frasier and Parks and Recreation. “There’s nothing that’s going to give you deep thought there. Something like Line of Duty or Killing Eve is not like that.” But her most compulsive viewing is The Big Bang Theory, to which she has fallen asleep every night for the past five years.

“I’m one of those weird people who has to have noise on when I work. I always have at least the radio and the TV on at the same time. I feel like my brain has adapted to all these extra stimuli – if there’s silence, I can’t switch off, so it’s a way of keeping my brain occupied. So when I go to sleep I have to watch The Big Bang Theory on repeat or I just lie awake thinking about stuff.”

Emma knows how bad all that blue light is for your concentration, and how it is important to give your brain a break from information. She wishes she could listen to some classical music, or even have silence instead. “But I now just can’t sleep without it.” She estimates that she has seen every episode about 20 times. Considering there are 279 episodes, that is a lot of Big Bang Theory.


Richard Godwin

The GuardianTramp

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