Friends, episode 237: the one where the takeover goes wrong

It turns out AT&T didn’t have room on its sofa for WarnerMedia after all

It has been a source of immense concern for everybody throughout the pandemic, up there with the constant strain on hospital systems, the infectiousness of virus variants and the sorry state of international co-operation: would Covid-19 force the cancellation of the Friends reunion?

Never mind your real friends, whoever they are, just when exactly would we get to see a deadpan re-enactment of that time Monica got stung by a jellyfish?

The answer, in this part of the world, is Thursday, when the "non-scripted" cast get-together will be on-demand on Sky and Now (the Sky-owned streaming service formerly known as Now TV) from 8am before airing on Sky One at 8pm. In the US, the nostalgia-fest will be available through newbie streamer HBO Max.

Indeed, it was the launch of HBO Max in May 2020 that prompted the creation of the reunion special, which has had to be postponed twice due to Covid-19 waves in Los Angeles.


Few people old enough to remember watching the sitcom the first time around – however much they liked and howled at it – were crying out to see Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer reminisce about splashing about in a fountain. Nevertheless, the special has finally been taped and will soon be broadcast thanks to HBO Max owner WarnerMedia's grand plan to use the Friends back catalogue to rack up precious streaming subscribers.

To recap, in its long afterlife, Friends has glowed even more brightly than it did during the decade from 1994 and 2004 when it aired on NBC in the US and (from 1995) on Network 2 in Ireland. There was a period of post-Friends fatigue – during which former UK rights-holder Channel 4 cut the cord on its nightly E4 repeats, citing a desire for "creative renewal" – but it was brief.

When all 236 episodes wound up on Netflix (which is where you can still find it in Ireland and Britain), the show was discovered by the generation that wasn't yet born in 1994 and had yet to weigh in on whether or not Ross and Rachel were "on a break" that time. After makers Warner Bros Television let its distribution deal with Netflix expire, Friends became the in-house golden child and key commercial pawn for would-be Netflix rival HBO Max.

Unwinding takeover

It goes without saying that the world has changed just a bit since 2019, when Friends: The Reunion was first announced. The plot twist that unfolded last week is that WarnerMedia has been going through some stuff too – namely the unravelling of parent company AT&T’s costly ambitions.

The US telecoms giant only completed its debt-fuelled mega-takeover of Time Warner (which became WarnerMedia) for a whopping $85 billion (€69 billion ) in June 2018. Less than three years later, it has confirmed an embarrassing backtrack on its big, if not unique, strategy to use pricey content plays to spur growth in its core telecoms business.

AT&T has effectively filed for divorce on its media assets, confirming after months of pressure from disgruntled shareholders that it will spin off WarnerMedia into a separate entity in a $43 billion deal through which Warner will merge with US factual television giant Discovery.

John Malone, the US billionaire who controls Virgin Media's parent Liberty Global and is also a major shareholder in Discovery, has given this deal his seal of approval, describing the opportunity to combine Discovery with WarnerMedia under the leadership of Discovery chief executive David Zaslav as "compelling".

The new business will create “real value for shareholders and a legacy investment for my grandkids”, Malone suggested, which is nice for the shareholders and grandkids, if slightly less so for the WarnerMedia employees now expected to lose their jobs in the expected rounds of “synergies”.

Saddled with more than $170 billion in debt, it really hasn’t been AT&T’s day, its week, its month or even its year. Somebody should probably have warned its management about the “AOL” rule of mergers and acquisitions: never buy Time Warner.

To be fair, it isn't the only telco to have fancied its chances marrying content creation with content distribution. Liberty Global, the ultimate owner of Virgin Media Television in the Republic and a shareholder in production house All3Media and broadcaster ITV, does something similar on a smaller scale – for now, at least.

BT and Eir, two descendants of former telecoms monopolies that have used premium sports rights to drive their broadband businesses, are notably stepping back from the game, with Eir no longer pursuing any broadcast rights and BT entering talks to sell BT Sport.

It turns out content is expensive, and shareholders hate expensive things. Who knew?

Crowded sofa

For consumers, the prospect of a tie-up between WarnerMedia (which includes CNN and Hollywood studio Warner Bros Pictures, as well as HBO Max) and Eurosport-owner Discovery (a backer of forthcoming UK news channel GB News) could reorganise the crowded sofas of the streaming market once more.

For one thing, Discovery's more established links in Europe reaffirm suspicions that the days are numbered for Sky's long-standing status as the home of HBO content from Game of Thrones to Mare of Easttown.

In the meantime, WarnerMedia will be hoping some sentimental Friends camaraderie will do the business for HBO Max, which is currently sitting on less than a fifth of Netflix’s subscriber tally, but has yet to begin its international campaign.

If all else fails, there’s always the peak-1990s merchandise. In proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same, high-street clothing chains now devote entire rails to T-shirts and sweatshirts bearing that familiar Friends logo.