UPDATE 6:00PM: It's official, Fox has come to terms with the voice cast of "The Simpsons" and renewed the series for two additional seasons (via The Hollywood Reporter). But "The Simpsons" may still be nearing the end of its run for various reasons. Read on for more:
When "The Simpsons" debuted on Fox back in 1989, no one could have predicted that it would become a pop cultural phenomena as well as a breakout hit that helped the then fledgling Fox network grow into the juggernaut that it is today.
Most TV series don't run for ten or twenty years, much less 23 seasons. But "The Simpsons" is a unique success story that has made its producers, stars and network millions of dollars. And every few years, it's become common for the cast and the network to have a dramatic standoff over the per-episode salaries. It happened in 1998, 2004 and 2008. And each time, the network said that it couldn't possibly give the cast more money (and even threatened to recast the lead roles) before ultimately giving the cast most of what they wanted.
When another salary dispute between Fox and the "Simpsons" cast broke out earlier this week, most observers probably shrugged and just assumed that the situation would resolve itself as it always has before. However, this time things are different and regardless of whether a new deal is reached, "The Simpsons" may be on the way out at Fox.
During the last salary impasse, the primary voice actors, Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer were given a new deal that reportedly paid them around $400,000 per episode. In the current contract negotiations, Fox reportedly demanded a 45% pay reduction, while the cast answered with an offer of a 30% pay reduction in addition to a percentage of the lucrative back end deals.
Fox responded to that offer with a public declaration that "The Simpsons" could not continue unless the cast accepted the original offer, citing declining ratings and the high production costs of the show.
In an open letter released earlier this week, Shearer revealed that he was willing to cut his salary even more drastically if it meant the actors could finally get a piece of the back end deals.
"Fox wants to cut our salaries in half because it says it can’t afford to continue making the show under what it calls the existing business model. Fox hasn’t explained what kind of new business model it has formulated to keep the show on the air, but clearly the less money they have to pay us in salary, the more they’re able to afford to continue broadcasting the show. And to this I say, fine – if pay cuts are what it will take to keep the show on the air, then cut my pay. In fact, to make it as easy as possible for Fox to keep new episodes of 'The Simpsons' coming, I’m willing to let them cut my salary not just 45% but more than 70% – down to half of what they said they would be willing to pay us. All I would ask in return is that I be allowed a small share of the eventual profits.
My representatives broached this idea to Fox yesterday, asking the network how low a salary number I would have to accept to make a profit participation feasible. My representatives were told there was no such number. There were, the Fox people said, simply no circumstances under which the network would consider allowing me or any of the actors to share in the show’s success.
As a member of the 'Simpsons' cast for 23 years, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve had a great run and no one should feel sorry for any of us. But given how much joy the show has given so many people over the years – and given how many billions of dollars in profits News Corp. has earned and will earn from it – I find it hard to believe that this is Fox’s final word on the subject. At least I certainly hope it isn’t, because the alternative is to cancel the show or fire me for having the gall to try to save the show by helping Fox with its new business model. Neither would be a fair result – either to those of us who have committed so many years to the show or to its loyal fans who make our effort worthwhile."
A deadline for a deal was previously set for today, but both Deadline and The Hollywood Reporter indicate that the cast and the network may be close to a deal that would see the cast get only a 30% pay cut, but no back end participation. The producers of "The Simpsons" are also reportedly renegotiating their deals to accept a smaller salary to help the show continue.
Why was Fox able to win concessions during this round of negotiations? Because quite frankly, the network has been preparing for life without "The Simpsons" for a long time. Take a look at the Fox Animation Domination block. Aside from "The Simpsons," there are three animated series produced by Seth MacFarlane with more animated series on the way, including MacFarlane's revival of "The Flintsones" and "Napoleon Dynamite." That's too many programs for a two hour block and the network needs some place to put those shows. Something has to give.
"The Simpsons" isn't the ratings hit that it used to be, but it is still wildly popular around the world. Earlier this year, there were rumors that Fox is looking into starting a "Simpsons" themed cable channel or an online portal to better utilize its staggering 506 episodes. The catch is that Fox can't do anything like that until the program is no longer producing new episodes.
A recent report by RBC Capital Markets suggested that Fox's parent company, News Corp would get a deal worth approximately $750 million by selling the broadcast rights for "The Simpsons" to a cable outlet; which again, is something that can only happen at the end of its run thanks to a syndication deal that was signed 17 years ago. The timing of this report was very fortuitous for the network, as it completely undercut the cast's power in the latest standoff.
The most likely scenario is that the network and the cast will agree to a two year deal that will bring the series to a total of 25 seasons and allow the network to reap the rewards and hype of a final season. (UPDATE: As noted above, Fox did renew "The Simpsons" for two additional seasons and didn't specify if the 25th season will be the end or not). The people working on the show are going to make their money, even if it won't be as much as they were hoping for. But after two more seasons, there may no longer be an incentive for the network to keep the show alive.
No matter how this plays out, "The Simpsons" are going to stick around in reruns for the rest of our lives and beyond. Share your fondest "Simpsons" memories and jokes in the comment section below!