'Friends': what the world was like when the cult sitcom was first broadcast

With the hugely popular 'Friends' now available on Netflix, we look back at what made news when the show first came on TV in 1994

FRIENDS -- Pictured: (l-r) Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, David Schwimmer as Ross Geller, Courteney Cox as Monica Geller, Matt Le Blanc as Joey Tribbiani, Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay  (Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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Almost 25 years after the first episode of popular sitcom Friends was broadcast on NBC on September 22, 1994, all 10 seasons of the show, which ran until 2004, are finally available to fans on Netflix (including in the UAE).

A lot has changed since we first met the characters of Monica Geller, Chandler Bing, Joey Tribbiani, Rachel Green, Ross Geller and Phoebe Buffay. For starters, the smartphone was still the stuff of sci-fi and 60 Minutes was America's most popular show on TV screens.

We take a look at the way the world was until that seminal day in TV history.

The world on September 22, 1994

In the news

At the time, the front page of the New York Times was dominated by the developing crisis in Haiti, where a military dictatorship was in the process of collapsing.

The following month the exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide would return from the United States to Haiti with president Bill Clinton’s praise ringing in his ears.

Aristide's time in democratic government or opposition would last 10 years until he was deposed by a US-backed coup during his second presidency in February 2004, just a matter of weeks before the final episode of Friends aired in May.

Coincidence? Or is Friends actually a shadowy intelligence programme? The truth is out there, to quote another popular show of the era.


SEINFELD -- Pictured: (l-r) Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes  (Photo by Dan Zaitz/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Seinfeld, which ran from 1989 to 1998, was one of the most popular TV shows at the time

What was Friends competing with when it launched on screens in 1994? The most popular show on US TV was the nightly news show 60 Minutes, with around 20 million viewers on average in the period from 1993 to 1994, according to the Nielsen ratings. After that came a glut of competing sitcoms, with the next six slots in the 10 ten taken up by Home Improvement, Seinfeld, Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Coach and Frasier. So it's safe to say Friends had some pretty stiff competition on launch.

In technology

The smartphone was still the stuff of science fiction in 1994, and the must-have mobile phone of choice for the tech geeks of the day was the Motorola MicroTAC Elite.

This technological wonder was one of the earliest flip phones, the smallest and lightest on the market at the time, and it featured the first ever two-line screen display.

Other up-to-the-minute features included phone book, timer, security code, tone control, and the first in-built answering machine. It was also the first mobile phone to use a lithium-ion battery.

It was also produced in a rare VIP model, which had black housing, gold lettering, an orange LED display, over the ordinary Elite, which had a grey housing, a green LED display, and white lettering.

In the UAE

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, Jan 28, 2015. UAE stamps issued in 1994. Photo: Reem Mohammed / The National 

 for first focus story  *** Local Caption ***  RM_POSTAL_1994_02.jpeg
These UAE stamps were issued in 1994, the year Friends first hit TV screens

You'd be unlikely to be watching Friends in the UAE in 1994. Orbit Communications, the region's first multi-lingual pay-TV service had only just launched that same year while Showtime, its biggest competitor (and ultimate merger partner, forming OSN), wouldn't arrive for another two years.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi were unrecognisable too. Sheikh Zayed Road featured only a smattering of buildings, including the under-construction Crowne Plaza Hotel, the first on Sheikh Zayed Road The Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club cut a lonely figure on the banks of the Creek, long before the surrounding hotels had sprung up.

In popular culture

September is a little early to be thinking about Christmas, but it was the right time if you wanted to get your hands on that year's top selling Christmas toys. The success of Power Rangers had already caught manufacturers Bandai by surprise in 1993, resulting in severe shortages in stores.

They would not make the same mistake in 1994. Some 11 new factories were added to the production in 1994, boosting output by 10 times, and yet still shortages were reported.

In the pop charts it was Ace of Base's year, their The Sign was the year's top selling single on the charts while All that She Wants and Don't Turn Around were still dominating.

In cinemas, two movies ran away with that year's accolades. The Lion King was the year's biggest hit, grossing over $750 million (Dh3 billion) globally, with Forrest Gump close behind with around $680m. It was a steep drop off for the rest of the year's top 10, with True Lies the third best of the lot at $378m.

A handout photo of Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump (Phillip Caruso/ Paramount Pictures) *** Local Caption ***  al29se-todo-gump.jpg
Forrest Gump was one of the runaway films of 1994. Courtesy Phillip Caruso

In architecture

Ever present in the first few seasons of the show was New York's World Trade Centre twin towers. They featured prominently in the show's opening credits, and would regularly pop up during episodes as links between scenes or establishing shots.

Following the September 11, 2001, terror attack that altered the Manhattan skyline, the towers quietly vanished from the show's visual script. It wasn't just the visual editing. The episode that was due to air on October 11 of that year, exactly one month after the attacks, featured Monica and Chandler being delayed from heading off for their honeymoon, thanks to Chandler making a joke about a bomb at the airport.

At the episode's culmination, as the pair are released from custody and about to leave, Joey calls Monica to ask if she wants him to repair a gas leak he has discovered in her flat.

"No I just want you to stand there and watch the place blow up," she screams, and the pair are promptly marched back to the interview room. Unsurprisingly. the episode was hastily rewritten and reshot to feature a new storyline about a combative pair of newly weds on the same trip.


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