Number 1


How Friends wins advertising friends.

Surprise: Good-looking people sleeping together sells ads
Surprise: Good-looking people sleeping together sells ads

No one will be surprised to hear that Friends was the No. 1 show in prime time for the first week of the fall season. That sitcom has been a hit pretty much from the word go, but last year its popularity snowballed to new levels, and now it’s become an awesome juggernaut, topping the ratings week after week. Recently, Friends also hit No. 1 on a list that’s even more important to a TV network: It is, for advertisers, the single most expensive prime-time show. According to Advertising Age, a typical 30-second spot during Friends costs $455,700, a 29 percent jump that puts the show at the top of this particular list for the first time in its nine-year history. (Last year’s most expensive show for advertisers was Survivor, at an average $445,000 for 30 seconds.)

I’m sure there’s no need for me to explain much about the premise of Friends (which is a good thing, since I’ve seen a grand total of about six episodes), but it’s basically about three guys and three gals who live in suspiciously large New York apartments, humorously cope with the problems that come along with being incredibly good-looking white people, and occasionally sleep with each other.

The official explanation for the show’s increased popularity with advertisers is that lately it’s done even spectacularly better with viewers age 18 to 49, and also because this is expected to be the final season of Friends and advertisers want to “be a part of” that. 

On the first point, Ad Age says that last season Friends’ ratings among 18-to-49ers rose 21 percent, capturing an average of 31 percent of the viewing audience during its time slot. Presumably this is a result of wider interest in the show’s cliffhanger-ish plotlines, as fans wonder whether Alison will have Billy’s baby, or whether the evil Heather Locklear will break them up for good. Oh, wait, that was Melrose. Well, whatever.

Even casual followers of the vagaries of TV advertising are familiar with the idea that many sponsors are particularly covetous of certain demographic groups. The 18-to-34 crowd is the subject of much competition, and to a lesser extent, so are the 18-to-49ers. (There’s a lot of debate about whether advertisers’ lust for younger consumers makes any sense, but we’ll leave that question for another time.) The curious thing about the idea of 18- to 49-year-olds is that they somehow constitute a coherent demographic at all. The U.S. Census doesn’t cut up its figures quite the same way that media buyers do, but eyeballing the 2000 data suggests that roughly half of the U.S. population of 280 million people is age 18 to 49. So when we say that Friends appeals to this particular “demo,” perhaps we could clarify by referring to that demo simply as “the masses.”

This isn’t (solely) a matter of pedantry because so many observers in recent years have argued that the idea of trying to reach “the masses” is out of date. It’s a sliced-and-diced world out there, with a million channels and a zillion Web sites to choose from, and the key is micro-targeting the audience you want. There’s something to that, of course. But as it’s often described, the trend was supposed to mean that the micro would annihilate the mass, which was supposed to be particularly bad news for the creaky old broadcast networks.

But actually, the rising cost of time on Friends is not an exception: The broadcast networks obviously don’t have anything near the saturation they enjoyed when they were the only game in town, but meanwhile, they’re having a great year. According to the Wall Street Journal, the networks’ “business is booming,” and they “are selling commercial airtime for 25% to 40% more than they could in May.”

Now, there are a lot of reasons for this. But one that doesn’t often get addressed is that mass still matters. Given the rise of more and more entertainment that’s finely honed to a particular demo, the shows that can still deliver something like a mass audience are more important than ever. That 18-to-49 group watching Friends is obviously broad enough to include parents and kids watching the same show. That’s even more true when you consider that Friends is also the most popular show among all viewers; a Slate colleague who happened to attend a taping of the show recently noted that the studio audience was heavier on teens (and “with-it soccer moms who seemed to be recalling their own urban glory days”) than with people who were actually living Friends-like lives. The point isn’t that the show isn’t popular with hip urban singles; the point is that it’s also popular with a whole lot of other people. And that’s what really matters.

As for the final-season effect, the reason it may make the show even more attractive to advertisers is closely related to its mass appeal: If the Friends-makers are able to whip up a clever finale plotline, it’s sure to attract fans who had lost track of the show, and if the water-cooler factor gets loud enough, it’ll even get the interest of people who never watched before but who will simply want to be “in on” whatever everyone else is talking about (like the first season of Survivor). The show’s final episode could turn out to be a genuine phenomenon. A mass phenomenon—the kind advertisers like best.