Many still think it isn’t “very entertaining, clever, or original.”

Hindsight: 20/20 or just plain wrong?
An internal NBC research report created before the 1994 debut of Friends gave the sitcom a failing grade, describing the pilot as “not very entertaining, clever, or original.”
Of course the Peacock show went on to become a Thursday night mainstay over the next decade, consistently ranking among Nielsen’s top 10 and pulling in over 52 million viewers for its two-hour finale last week.
But test audiences in May 1994 found the program and its then unknown stars “not very favorable,” according to the document published online at The Smoking Gun. The show got a “weak” review and was graded a measly 41 out of 100. By comparison, ER earned a 91, though it’s only fair to point out that Seinfeld also scored a “weak” rating.
Most critical of the laffer was the over-35 set who described the characters as smug, superficial and self-absorbed. “They were not really like people they would want to know.” The show did best among 18-34-year-olds (no big surprise) and men showed more interest than women in both the story and premise of the show (how things change).
Courteney Cox, best known as Alex Keaton’s girlfriend on Family Ties at the time, was the test-audience fave, though her appeal was “well below desirable levels for a lead.” Lisa Kudrow and Matthew Perry had “marginal appeal” while “Rachel, Ross and Joey scored even lower.”
To be more specific: Men thought Monica was sexy, women enjoyed her sense of humor, and both found her the most stable and together of the group. Big bro Ross received a lukewarm response, slightly more favorable among women. But the “slacker” came across as “weak and insecure.” Ouch.
Phoebe was kooky from the get-go, described by the test audience as an “airhead” and “’60s personality” who contributed a left-field perspective. “Snappy and funny” was Chandler’s review, appealing to adult viewers as “more intelligent and more professional looking than the rest of the group.”
As for Rachel, the ‘do had yet to catch on. She was described as a “spoiled brat” and the “most sheltered” who had “the most growing up to do.” Joey scored best with teens as a wise-cracking, macho character with a big ego (ah, but will they tune in to his spinoff?).
The report even provided some recommendations for improving the Friends format, which execs luckily ignored, including the addition of older characters, fewer sexual situations and using Chandler’s dreams as a running bit on the show. Smarter suggestions included a larger role for Phoebe, more humor and a deeper emotional involvement among the characters.
And a potential test-audience victim saved from the screening scrap heap? The Central Perk, which confused viewers who found it too funky and too similar to the apartment setting.
Imagine, a world without Gunther…