How do you value a sitcom that hasn’t been on TV for 14 years?
Easy: You tell Netflix you’re going to take it away, and see how much they pay.
The answer, as we all know by now, is $100 million. Which is what Netflix is going to pay AT&T* for the right to stream “Friends” next year.
But the answer is also a bit more complicated, for a few reasons. To find out why, let’s go over some deal terms and history, some of which you haven’t read before.
As the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Flint reported yesterday, AT&T’s WarnerMedia, which owns “Friends,” has extended a deal that gives Netflix exclusive streaming rights to all 10 seasons of the show through 2019. And WarnerMedia is likely to want access to the show for its own streaming service, which is supposed to launch sometime next year.
And, as the New York Times’ Edmund Lee reported today, Netflix is paying $100 million (give or take) to stream the show next year.
But Netflix wasn’t the only streamer interested in “Friends.” Other bidders for the show included Hulu, the streaming service currently owned by Disney, Fox, NBCU and … WarnerMedia, as well as Apple, which doesn’t have a streaming service yet, but also plans on launching one next year.
I’m told that Apple, which is spending a lot of money commissioning its own shows, but has yet to buy a library of existing ones, ended up pulling its bid for “Friends.”
I’m also told that Hulu, which is very likely to end up solely owned by Disney/Fox once those two companies consummate their merger, tried hard to land “Friends.” At the very least, Hulu’s interest in the show ended up pushing the price up well beyond the $30 million a year Netflix was already paying for it.
But the real issue isn’t just what “Friends” is worth for a streaming service next year, but in the years following. WarnerMedia will almost certainly want to include “Friends” in its yet-to-launch service. But it hasn’t decided whether it will want exclusive rights to the show, or whether it will be willing to share it.
In part that’s because there’s some chicken-and-egg going on here: “Friends” is a valuable asset, so WarnerMedia would naturally want that asset in its own service instead of someone else’s … unless that WarnerMedia service ends up being a flop, in which case stashing “Friends” there means it is a wasted asset.
So here’s the hedge WarnerMedia has ended up with**: After 2019, WarnerMedia has the ability to pull “Friends” from Netflix altogether and keep the show as an exclusive. Or it can let Netflix stream the show, as well, at a discount of about 25 percent. Which means there’s a scenario where WarnerMedia can get another $75 million a year from Netflix and still use the show as a key part of its own streaming service.
Is that a good idea? People who work for AT&T will tell you it is. For a contrarian view, I can direct you to former Amazon exec Matthew Ball, who has an excellent tweetstormyou can read right now. For free!
And if you’re the kind of person who finds all of this entertaining, I have good news for you: You’re likely to see a repeat of this plot sometime in the near future, when Comcast’s NBCUniversal*** has to think about what it wants to do with “The Office,” which it currently streams on Netflix but will most likely want to keep for its own, yet-to-be-announced streaming service that it will likely launch once it sells its stake in Hulu.
NBCU execs say Netflix has told them “The Office” generates more viewing hours than anything else on the service. Which means Jim and Pam may end up getting more money than Ross and Rachel.
* Some people who are involved in this transaction would like you to know that the number isn’t actually $100 million, but something less than that. But feel free to round up.
** The deal isn’t actually finalized, but people familiar with the negotiations say it is pretty far along.
*** NBCU owns a minority stake in Vox Media, which owns this site. Haven’t typed that in a while. Feels good to get it going again.