More than 25 years since it began its 10-year run in 1994, Friends is still a huge money-spinner for Warner Bros, generating $1 billion in syndication revenue every year.
And its legion of fans shows no sign of giving up on the franchise, as proved again last month in the excitement surrounding a much-hyped reunion episode – the first time the six stars of Friends appeared on camera together since the last episode on May 6, 2004.
Aficionados will know the episode titles in Friends were always kept intentionally generic. For instance, there’s The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break, The One With the Monkey and The Last One, which, without requiring much guesswork, is the series finale.
The hugely-hyped reunion show, therefore, was aptly named The One They Get Back Together.
The actors that played Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Ross, Chandler and Joey in the sitcom were reunited in an emotional two-hour special to read old scripts and share anecdotes. Celebrity guests joined the crew to make gushing tributes too.
Friends fandom is entrenched in China as well, with the reunion show broadcast by each of the three major online streaming platforms – Tencent Video, iQiyi and Youku – who paid royalties to stream it on the same day that it came out in the US.
Fans in China were captivated and on the day in question (May 27) the hashtags #Friends and #WhyWe LoveFriends dominated social media, becoming the top searches on Sina Weibo. The number of views on topics relating to the reunion special surged to more than 1.2 billion and Douban, the TV series and film review site, give it a rating of 9.5 out of 10 (which is incredibly high).
However, fans in China didn’t get the full offering, with the 100-minute episode trimmed down in a number of places. Appearances by Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and the K-pop group BTS were all missing from the special.
Why? Lady Gaga has been a target of China’s censors since 2016 (like Richard Gere she is in the bad books for her views on Tibet). Bieber has been banned since 2014 when he posted a photo from the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honours Japan’s war dead (the Chinese view visits to the shrine as an endorsement of the Nanjing Massacre). And Korean boyband BTS were victims of a more recent backlash for failing to mention the sacrifice of Chinese troops in comments on the pain of the Korean War (Chinese soldiers fought on the side of North Korea).
But no matter, the missing cameos didn’t dampen the enthusiasm that fans felt for the reunion show. “I was totally fine until Ross appeared [the character was the last to leave the apartment in the series finale]. And I just couldn’t stop the tears,” one fan sobbed.
“For the audience it is like meeting six old pals once again after 17 years, thinking about the fun we had in the past, full of emotion and enthusiasm at the same time,” proclaimed Qilu Evening News.
Part of the reason Friends is so beloved in China is that a generation grew up watching it on DVD, often as a way of trying to learn English. Even today, queries on ‘how to learn English easily’ on Zhihu, the question-and-answer platform, prompt plenty of suggestions to watch the sitcom.
“Initially I watched the show to familiarise myself with the American English that I’d need in college,” one fan recalled on weibo. “ But a lot of my dormmates asked me, why do you keep watching it? My answer: it is a great show! There is eye-candy; plenty of laughter and drama; and a lot of healing.”
“Even though the show concluded almost two decades ago, it has attracted fans that were born in the millennial era. Regardless of age, Friends resonates deeply with audiences because topics such as youth, love, friendship and self-identity connect across all age groups, races and geographies. No matter how things change, people still need friendship and support, so the story of Friends will never be outdated,” claimed the Beijing Youth Daily.
Many of the people who wanted to watch the uncensored version of the reunion did find a loophole. After the release of the special in the US, clips of the show in its entirety began appearing on Chinese video-sharing site Bilibili, which is sometimes touted as China’s YouTube. Needless to say, the other streaming platforms that paid for the Chinese rights to the show were less than pleased, each issuing statements condemning Bilibili for infringing their intellectual property rights.
In response, Bilibili rapidly took down all videos relating to the reunion show. Even much older content that used scenes from Friends to teach English were also removed from the platform, which prompted netizens to complain that the clean-up was “too extreme”.
Others took aim at the three streaming platforms, claiming that they had a history of streaming unauthorised content themselves. “I’m laughing to death. Which of these four sites didn’t get their start in piracy?” one netizen scoffed. “Now that they’ve eaten their fill and wiped themselves clean, they pretend like they have nothing to do with it,” added another.
The situation is an interesting one as Bilibili has joined its three rivals in acquiring the broadcasting rights to all 10 seasons of Friends, which it plans to release in China later this year. Most of Bilibili’s content is user-generated, however, and it has come under growing pressure to prevent flagrant copyright infringement.
“The growth model of Bilibili is in large part driven by user-generated content. When content creators generate more high-quality content, the platform can attract more and more users. However, with the blade of ‘copyright infringement’ pressed against its neck, [the business model] is a ticking time bomb for Bilibili, which is highly dependent on user uploads,” ChinaIPO, a financial news site, warned. “If things go on like this, is Bilibili going to have to buy up copyrights just like iQiyi, Tencent Video and Youku? And which is higher: the cost of copyright infringement or the expense in acquiring content?”
The debate matters for shareholders including Sony, which holds a large stake (see WiC492). Bilibili raised $2.6 billion in a Hong Kong secondary listing in March this year, after debuting on Nasdaq, where it raised $483 million in 2018.
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