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Friends, the Manhattan-set ensemble sitcom created by David Crane and Marta Kauffman, and starring (in alphabetical order by last name) Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer, originally aired on NBC (and Global in Canada) from 1994 to 2004.
Since that time, syndicated repeats of the series have aired on a number of television channels, most recently Bell Media-owned outlets like CTV Comedy Channel and Much (it's also available on U.S. superstations like Peachtree TV).
As well, from January 1, 2015 to December 30, 2020, the series had also been available for streaming in Canada on Netflix:
However, after almost six years, on Thursday, December 31, 2020, the streaming rights to the series moved to Crave, the subscription streaming service owned by Bell Media, as announced on December 1:
As a result, Friends is now available on Crave as part of the entry-level Crave package which is $9.99 (plus applicable sales taxes) per month with a direct subscription, and occasionally cheaper when subscribed to through TV service providers.
This news means it is very likely that Crave will also carry the Friends reunion special now scheduled to be released in 2021. However, as that special was commissioned as an HBO Max Original, it falls under separate distribution terms and will likely only be available in the Movies + HBO tier, which is an additional $9.99 per month. (The same caveat applied to the Fresh Prince reunion when it was released on Crave in November 2020.)
Who owns "Friends"?
The series was originally commissioned (ordered) by the NBC network in the United States. However, NBC did not produce the show internally, and no longer has any claim on it. Commissioning a series from an outside studio means only that the network has the right to air new episodes as they were produced, as well as reruns of the then-current season while the series remains in production. (Similarly, Global, which bought Canadian premiere broadcast rights to Friends from its producers when it was first on the air, no longer has any claim on it either.)
Instead, the show was produced by Warner Bros. Television – if you watch episodes right to the end of the credits in reruns or on streaming, you can see the blue-and-gold "WB" shield at the end of every episode (and not the logo of NBC or one of its sister companies like Universal).
This means that Warner Bros., and its parent companies AT&T / WarnerMedia, own the underlying intellectual property rights, like copyrights, to the series. They also control the syndication rights, which means selling the ability for other channels or services (like Netflix and Crave) to carry reruns of the series.
How did Crave pick up the rights?
Crave's announcement does not specify how it acquired rights to the series, under what terms, or for how long. However, Crave (and its parent company Bell Media) have a longstanding relationship with Warner Bros.' parent company WarnerMedia, which has deepened over the past couple of years with Crave becoming the Canadian home to HBO Max Originals programming, and acquiring Canadian rights to Friends lines up well with that.
HBO Max is, of course, the American streaming service owned by WarnerMedia which launched in 2020 and took over streaming rights to Friends in that country, and commissioned the aforementioned upcoming unscripted Friends reunion special. It is working on international expansion, but due to its existing deals with Bell / Crave, a Canadian launch appears unlikely until the mid-2020s at the earliest.
This means that for now, it makes sense for Bell and WarnerMedia to work together – at least some of the time – so that the latter's "tentpole" programs like Friends and HBO series have a consistent Canadian streaming home, just as they have one in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Does this mean Netflix Canada is dropping "Friends"? Why?
That's correct: Canadians are no longer able to watch Friends via Netflix. Crave says its rights are "exclusive" (within Canada); as a result, Netflix lost streaming rights in Canada once Crave's rights came into effect, and it will not be able to stream the show again until after Crave's rights expire (if the distributor, Warner Bros., is interested in selling future rights to Netflix at that point).
Netflix's Canadian Twitter account acknowledged this shortly after Crave's announcement:
To be abundantly clear, this doesn't mean that Netflix wanted to drop Friends of its own volition. It just means that Netflix's contract expired, and if it was given an opportunity by Warner Bros. to renew at all, the service decided it either cannot (or doesn't want to) pay for a new contract at the price the studio was asking for it.