The rivalry between Friends and Seinfeld has been revived this week, so let's look at why the two are so often compared, and which one of them is the real winner. Seinfeld turns 30 this year, and the "show about nothing" remains a critical darling. Friends, meanwhile, is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2019, and is still a cultural behemoth.
As two major 90s sitcoms, the pair are frequently pitted against each other, but the rivalry came to the fore this week thanks to a tweet from @newscomauHQ, which read: "OK, let's settle this... 'Friends' Vs 'Seinfeld': Which show is better?" It was accompanied by a video cutting together clips from the two shows, and the post went viral as fans of each weighed in on the debate, which has since been raging all over the internet.
It brings what was a very 90s discussion into the modern-day, which is a reflection of the enduring quality and popularity of the two TV series. There are a few factors as to why Friends and Seinfeld are rivals, and ultimately, regardless of opinion, there is one clear winner.
Why Friends & Seinfeld Are Rivals
Seinfeld and Friends are frequently compared, but why is that? The two shows are actually quite different in their sensibilities, with Seinfeld purporting to be a show about nothing where its characters don't learn and grow, contrasted to the warmer hangout vibe of Friends, which had clearer arcs across seasons and the series as a whole. Nonetheless, there are enough similarities between them, albeit fairly superficial, that have helped turn them into rivals.
Both Friends and Seinfeld follow a group of friends living in New York City, detailing their relationships, jobs, and general lives, with an apartment the core setting for both. They even loosely share the same universe, with the two series linked by Mad About You (which both directly crossed over with). But on top of that is the fact they were on the air at the same time, airing together as part of NBC's Must-See TV block on a Thursday night, and represented the two most popular sitcoms of the 1990s (and two of the biggest ever).
They were critically acclaimed, ratings juggernauts, and as with any area of pop-culture where there are two such popular products, then there's going to be a rivalry: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? Marvel or DC? Friends or Seinfeld? Since both have developed strong fanbases over the years since they finished their runs on TV, and remain a big part of cultural history, then the debate has never stopped. It's even been stoked by Jerry Seinfeld, who has previously accused Friends of ripping off Seinfeld (only half-jokingly), and it continues to be a point of division, but who won?
Seinfeld Beat Friends In The 90s
Friends and Seinfeld were the two biggest sitcoms of the 1990s, but while each had legions of fans watching them on NBC, it was Seinfeld who won the battle back then. Although Seinfeld started in 1989, it wasn't until the early-mid 90s when it really started to grow its audience to incredible levels, and became not only the most popular sitcom of the time, but one of the biggest TV shows overall too. By season 4, when the series when fully hitting its stride, it started to average over 20 million viewers, but it was the next few years that were truly mammoth.
Seinfeld season 5, which aired in the 1993-94 TV season, averaged just under 30 million viewers, and was the third-highest rank series according to Nielsen ratings. That was Seinfeld's last year without Friends alongside it on NBC, but rather than see the bright-new-thing become more popular, Seinfeld only got bigger. From 1994-1998 (when it concluded its run), Seinfeld was always in the top two highest-ranked TV shows as per Nielsen, alongside ER, finishing as number one on two occasions.
Friends was massively popular as well, but it couldn't quite compete with Seinfeld's numbers: the best it could finish when Seinfeld was also on the air was third, with an average of 29.4m viewers for season 3. Friends only finished as the number one show a single time, and that was the 2001-02 TV year, for Friends season 8. Across its run, Friends averaged 23.6 million viewers, contrasted to Seinfeld's 26.6m. Neither was the big winner of the 90s in terms of awards - that belonged to Frasier, which won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series five years in a row - but in that area too, Seinfeld had slightly more success than Friends: Seinfeld has 10 Emmy wins and 68 nominations, contrasted to Friends' 6 wins and 62 nominations.
Friends Is The Winner Overall
Seinfeld beat Friends at the time, and it remains more of a critical darling now, for example holding a Tomatometer score of 89%, compared to Friends' 78%. But while Seinfeld is generally held in higher regard by critics, with particular praise for its writing, it cannot match the enduring popularity of Friends. Even as it enters its 25th year, Friends remains one of the biggest TV shows in the world, with no sign of its popularity dipping anytime soon.
Both series have been the subject of mammoth streaming deals, but eyebrows were particularly raised when Netflix paid $100 million to keep Friends through 2019. Yes, $100m for just a single year. As the streaming wars heat up, there's a good chance Seinfeld will soon be the subject of another huge bid when its deal with Hulu expires, but it still doesn't hold the same sort of cultural cache as Friends does. That's not to say Seinfeld isn't popular or great - it's both - but Friends, in part because it existed into the beginning of the internet-era, is far more ubiquitous.
Friends merchandise is everywhere; there are entire festivals dedicated to it that constantly tour and sell-out; talk of a Friends reunion never goes away, no matter how many times it's said it won't happen. It's a fair bet that anywhere you are, you won't be too far from an episode of Friends. It's a series that just about everyone has seen at least some of, whereas Seinfeld, despite its greater popularity in the 1990s, is less likely to be as well-known by newer audiences. Friends is, alongside The Office, Netflix's most popular series, 15 years after it finished airing on TV and despite the billions they've spent on original content. Whether you think Seinfeld is better than Friends is a matter of opinion, but as things stand Friends is definitely the bigger TV show with a popularity that'll seemingly never end, which gives it the win in the long run.