A Casualty of Streaming Wars, ‘Friends’ Sees Spike in Disc, Digital Sales

“Friends” is giving the transactional side of the home entertainment business a very happy new year.

The landmark sitcom that helped birth the TV DVD category nearly two decades ago is once again a top DVD and Blu-ray Disc seller — and this time the sales boost is also being felt in digital sales, commonly known in the industry as “electronic sellthrough.”

The catalyst: the disappearance of “Friends” from its longtime exclusive on-demand home, the Netflix subscription streaming service. With streaming wars accelerating, AT&T, which owns the Warner Bros. studio that produced “Friends,” made plans for the show to come off Netflix once the license expired Dec. 31, 2019, and reappear on its own streaming service, HBO Max, which is launching in May 2020.

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In the meantime, “Friends” is only available for on-demand viewing on disc and for digital purchase or rental — and that’s led to a significant spike in sales.

Jeff Brown, EVP and GM of Television and Animation for Warner Bros.’ home entertainment division, said sales began to rise shortly after the announcement in July 2019 that “Friends” would be leaving Netflix at the end of the year.

Through the end of 2019, he said, sales of the season and complete series sets more than tripled. And since the official departure of “Friends” from Netflix on Jan. 1, Brown said, sales have spiked even higher, on both physical and digital formats.

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“Not bad for a 20-year-old TV show,” Brown said. “The discs really started selling well in the summer, when we announced the show was coming off Netflix and we launched a 25th anniversary promotion — but the digital really took off after the first of the year, once the show was off Netflix.”

The top seller is the complete series set, which Warner re-released on Blu-ray Disc and DVD in September. The package contains 10 seasons’ worth of shows, or a total of 236 episodes. On Amazon, the complete series set retails for $69.99 on DVD (40 discs), and $109.16 on Blu-ray Disc (21 discs).

Bundles of all 10 seasons also are available digitally through other retailers, like Apple iTunes and Walmart’s Vudu. They, too, are leading sales.

Individual season sets are also available for purchase on disc and through digital retailers, including Amazon Prime. DVD season sets sell for $13.19 on Amazon, with digital season sets going for $19.95. Consumers who want digital versions also can buy individual episodes at $1.99.

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During the five months in which “Friends” is absent from the streaming world, Brown said, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment will mount a “robust” promotional campaign he hopes will drive sales even higher.


Warner Mines Gold in Digital Sales of TV Shows

The surging popularity of Netflix and other subscription streaming services like Hulu, with their emphasis on episodic programming, has decimated the TV DVD business.

In May, CBS Interactive shut down the long-running TVShowsOnDVD.com website 13 years after it was launched, near the time TV DVD reached its peak with an annual consumer spend estimated at $4 billion.

That’s why Jeff Brown, the Warner EVP who oversees TV and franchise for the studio’s home entertainment division, is increasingly focusing on digital distribution — with stellar results, he said. According to Brown, Warner Bros. is the No. 1 studio in TV digital — and TV physical, as well.

See also: Warner Bringing Season 11 of ‘Big Bang Theory’ to Disc Sept. 11

Brown reports that at Warner Bros., electronic sellthrough (EST) of catalog TV properties is up 25% so far this year. The category, he said, has shown steady double-digit growth since the fourth quarter of 2017.

“This is a viable category that all retailers should support,” he said, noting that catalog accounts for about 50% of total TV EST sales.

“Our experience shows us that consumers will buy popular TV shows, particularly catalog favorites not on mainstream streaming services,” Brown said.

Reasons vary for the growth, he said. They range from a proliferation of available TV content and increased use of streaming media players such as Roku, making it easier for consumers to access the content digitally.

Brown says the most popular distribution channels include Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Xbox, Sony, Comcast and DirecTV.

Most sales are of “season pass” transactions, giving viewers access to an entire season of a particular TV show. These passes typically retail for between $9.99 and $39.99 — depending on content, format (HD is generally more expensive than SD), and whether there’s a promotion running.

Episodes may also be purchased individually, usually at $1.99 for standard-definition and $2.99 for high-definition.

Brown said Warner’s most popular TV catalog products include season one of “Westworld” and seasons one and two of “The Big Bang Theory.” “’Riverdale’ was a hit new release this year and season one will soon be in the catalog window,” he said.  Deep catalog shows such as “Fringe” and “Chuck” are also strong sellers.

And just because a show originates on a streaming service like Hulu or Netflix doesn’t mean there are no EST sales to be had, Brown said. Indeed, in the overall catalog TV EST category, one of the top sellers is Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Meanwhile, on the physical-media front, TV DVD sales continue to decline at an annual rate of about 15%, although Brown notes, “We do see demand for complete-series sets and for evergreen product, such as “Friends” and “Tales From the Crypt.”

The same goes for series with big “fanboy” bases, such as “Rick and Morty,” and shows that have been on the air for a long time, such as “Supernatural” and “Big Bang Theory.”

In addition, Brown said, “research shows collectors still have a soft spot for physical” — although he adds, “We believe there is growing interest in  building digital libraries. Our research indicates there’s a lot of upside in TV EST market — with potential interest in owning TV series digitally  nearly twice as high as current penetration.”

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