Old 'Friends' Give MTV A Boost With Young Viewers

Classic sitcom a favorite of millennials

MTV could use some friends.

Viacom last year again installed new management at its struggling network—once known for being on the cutting edge of youth culture. Since the holidays, MTV's ratings among the millennial viewers it wants to connect with are up, thanks surprisingly in large part to a show that made its debut before some of those viewers were born: the iconic sitcom Friends.

Since installing Friends three weeks ago in a two hour 6-8 p.m. ET/PT block, younger viewers have been here for MTV, helping to boost the network's returning primetime shows. And the network hopes that Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey and Ross will help it launch a slate of new shows beginning next month.

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Viacom originally bought the rights to Friends for Nick at Nite and TV Land, but the company changed its deal with Warner Bros. to put the series on MTV as well.

"Friends no doubt is a show we hear about constantly in focus groups when we're with millennials. It's very top of mind, it's a show that's very aspirational for them," said Laurel Weir, senior VP of strategic insights and research for MTV. "Historically we're very picky with the acquisitions we might put on MTV and this was a huge get for us because it speaks to the audience so poignantly."

Friends has quickly become MTV's top-rated acquired program. In its first two weeks it improved its timeslot by 11% among women 18 to 24. It's attracting 46% more new viewers to the network among 18 to 24-year-olds and 56% more new viewers among 12 to 17-year-olds. And though it averaged slightly lower adult 18-34 ratings than the programs it replaced (Catfish and movies), the trend is good, with adults 18-34 up 8% week to week and women 18-34 up 10%.

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In its second week, the median age of Friends viewers on MTV dropped to 30 years old. The time slot averaged 30.9 years old the four weeks before Rachel and company arrived.

The addition of Friends has contributed to a good month for MTV. Ratings so far in January are up 9% among people 18-34 and 7% among people 12 to 34, compared to December.

Turning around MTV is a priority for Viacom, whose youth-oriented cable networks have been losing viewers to digital entertainment options for several years. With ratings and revenues down, the family of Sumner Redstone, which controls the media giant, ousted long-time CEO Philippe Dauman in a drawn-out boardroom battle. New CEO Bob Bakish helped order changes in management at MTV, which is now led by Chris McCarthy, who also continues to run VH1, where he managed to boost ratings.

According to SNL Kagan, MTV's ad revenues rebounded 8% to $693 million in 2016 but were still down from their peak of $892 million in 2011.

Why do millennials like Friends, which went on the air at NBC in 1994?

"We're seeing that it really provides comfort. There's so much anxiety, it's a stressful world," said Weir.

There is also a big aspirational quality to the classic show that connects with current teens and college students. One piece of that is that today's youths yearn for a world with less technology, she says.

"We call it tech tension," said Weir. "Many of them are technology natives where they were born with a smartphone. It's such a big part of their lives but it can become overwhelming, that anxiety that comes with it, that your life is broadcasted across your circle of friends and there's something aspirational about watching a group of friends not have technology."

Young viewers are also comfortable with the characters and how they relate to each other.