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.
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%.
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.
And while Generation Xers might question how the Friends can afford such big New York City apartments, millennials are more optimistic. "They just love it and enjoy it. We haven't heard a cynical side on this show," Weir said.
Even though it's been nearly 13 years since a new episode aired, putting Friends on the air helps MTV connect with young viewers at a time when they've got more entertainment options than ever. But it doesn't make them think of MTV as a home for golden oldies their parents watched, according to Weir.
"The reaction was: 'That's such a great show. MTV knows what I like.' So it was very positive," she said. That should make it a good platform for promoting MTV's new shows. Are You the One? premiered Jan 11, Invasion of the Champs launches Feb. 7 and Stranded With a MIllion Dollars arrives Feb. 21.
Media buyers are also comfortable with an old show on a network where they're looking to target young viewers.
"The concept of acquiring programming to boost your networks ratings is not a new concept. But the twist here is that's it's a surprise that a show that's been around for so long resonates with the audience they're looking to target, the younger audience," said Francois Lee, executive VP, investment director at media agency Assembly.
Original shows get more attention and open the door to integrations and ways to tie a client to programming. But a show like Friends could give MTV flexibility as they look for the next Teen Wolf.
"It's always a balance between striving for the original content and something unique, but also buying content you know will deliver an audience. You're ultimately buying an audience," said Lee.
"Yes, MTV's ratings have grown since Friends has been put [on the schedule] and that isn't necessarily a bad thing," added Billie Gold, VP and director of programming research at Amplifi U.S. "Friends resonates with both millennials and older audiences, so it has broad appeal, something that a younger targeted network such as MTV could benefit from. Many viewers of the sitcom Friends are actually the ones who helped define MTV back in the early 80s, so why one might not necessarily think it's a great fit for the network, in a round-about way it is."
Gold notes that advertisers usually clamor to be in high-rated originals whose viewers are socially involved with the show. "Friends doesn't bring that to the table, but if it helps MTV raise its deflated ratings bar and gives it a broad platform off which to launch new shows, than it's a win for the network," she said. "Of course, MTV has to use older off-net programming in limited proportions as to not lose its edge and creativity that brings in its younger core viewers, but as a stepping stone to building back the network, it's worth the brand risk."
Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, says Warner Bros has been seeing the phenomenon of young viewers finding older TV series and movies for some time, particularly as they appear on new distribution platforms.
"Our library is well sold. As distribution platforms have blossomed there is tremendous competition for successful TV series and movies," Werner said. "When they are looking for programming that will draw an audience, it is natural and a successful formula to acquire TV series that by virtue of their initial and subsequent runs have proven to be successes."
Friends is going strong through four cycles of syndication. In addition to Viacom's channels, it appears on Turner's TBS. It does higher ratings on those other channels than on MTV, where viewers are just beginning to find it. Netflix began streaming Friends in 2015.
MTV's Weir says there was a fear that putting Friends on a linear channel would be less attractive when it became available for streaming on demand. Instead, "we found it only helps being in these other places because it's just more top of mind, it's more on your radar."
MTV found a clip with Joey saying he just got a "weird message from Ross to watch MTV" to promote what it's calling "Dinner with Friends."
There are times of the day when viewers do less appointment viewing and more surfing, Weir says.
Friends is the type of show that "if you're surfing you land on it and you stick around. And it builds throughout the block," she said. "It fits right in with the nature of that timeslot of being 'I'm just trying to find something I know I like, rather than something brand new.'"