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Understanding your lingering obsession with Friends

Nielsen published a report in January dissecting streaming habits from the previous year.

First, they found that Americans watched a whopping 21 million years of content in 2023. You can imagine how dramatically that figure would rise if they included the rest of the world. Clearly, we live in the entertainment age.

Secondly, they identified the following as the ten most streamed TV shows of 2023: Suits, Bluey, NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, Cocomelon, The Big Bang Theory, Gilmore Girls, Friends, Heartland, and Supernatural.

Have you noticed the astounding pattern in that list? None of those shows are new. I was a pupil when Gilmore Girls first aired. I spent my lower secondary school years obsessing over Supernatural. Friends ended two decades ago.

A list of the top ten most streamed shows from 2023 does not include any new shows from 2023. People are choosing to prioritize older content over newer, better-produced shows with superior production values.

A 2023 YouGov survey found that half of all Americans rewatch old episodes of shows they have already seen at least once a week. Common sense will compel you to blame older viewers for this trend. However, the YouGov survey found that older Americans were less likely to rewatch old episodes than their younger counterparts.

Before you assume that Americans have a loose screw, Africans are not so different. Local cinema halls in Kampala screen episodes of ancient shows like Prison Break and 24 every other week. So clearly, this is a global phenomenon.

That raises a question. Why do we rewatch old shows? Time magazine has one piece of the puzzle. Anna Goldfarb wrote an article for the publication highlighting Jill Duffy’s experience. After leaving the U.S. for India in 2015, adjusting to her new home was a struggle.

So, she turned to Seinfeld and Modern Family, older shows that reminded the editor of her life in San Francisco and New York. The characters in the shows provided the sort of comfort she could not get from the real friends she left in the U.S.

Before you dismiss Duffy’s story as an isolated incident, scientific research has shown that rewatching old shows can combat loneliness. One study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that individuals struggling with loneliness felt less lonely while rewatching familiar programs.

They also noticed that old TV programs could repel feelings of rejection and reduced self-esteem, particularly when the subjects in question encountered real-life situations that threatened to destroy close relationships.

Everyday Health cited Shira Gabriel (Professor of Psychology) in a 2023 article, in which she noted that humans are social beings. We have an unshakable desire to feel connected to other people. However, we can’t differentiate between the connections we form with real people and those bonds we build with fictional characters in TV shows.

This explains the passion you see online whenever a controversial development splits a fandom. People fight over fictional characters because those characters feel real to them.

That does not even account for the nostalgic aspects. Yes, the good old days are never as good as we remember. But that does not make older memories any less comforting. Think about the last time you looked through a decades-old album.

You could not stop smiling because the pictures triggered memories and emotions. Old shows are comparable to picture albums. They remind you of where you were in life as you watched those old episodes, which can do wonders for anxiety originating from present-day challenges. Old TV programs provide a much-needed escape. That makes them immensely valuable.

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