10.05.11

‘The Simpsons’ Impasse

With a deadline looming, the beloved, long-running animated Fox show is no closer to a deal for a new season. Lloyd Grove reports.

The testy contract negotiations first reported here between the cast of The Simpsons and 20th Century Fox Television—which is demanding that the six principal actors take a 45 percent pay cut from their $8 million salaries if there is to be a 24th season—reached the Mr. Burns/Bart Simpson stage on Wednesday.

The actors, channeling that famously incorrigible scamp of broadcasting history’s longest-running sitcom, are essentially advising the Fox studio executives, “Don’t have a cow, man!”

And the executives, doing their best impression of—who else?—Mr. Burns, might just as well be saying: “I’ve just robbed a man of his livelihood, and yet I feel strangely empty. Tell you what, Smithers—have him beaten to a pulp.”

According to a person close to the negotiations, several of the cast members—who voice the beloved characters of the animated series that anchors the Fox network’s prime-time Sunday schedule—are formulating a counter-proposal in which they would agree to accept an even larger pay cut, perhaps more than 50 percent, in return for a small piece of back-end syndication and merchandising profits.

In the past, the studio has adamantly refused to give the generously paid cast a taste of the potential billions that will accrue from worldwide syndication, potential future movies, DVDs, merchandise, and other ancillary Simpsons products. The studio’s stance has been a sore point among cast members who argue that they’ve contributed creatively to the success of the sitcom—not only voicing characters but also making them up and suggesting comic storylines. Thus they should be rewarded beyond their salaries, if not as much as the show’s nominal creators, James L. Brooks and Matt Groening.

Representatives of the actors were meeting late Wednesday in order to present their new terms in time to meet a Friday deadline. 20th Century Fox didn’t offer a comment by the time this story was posted.

“The actors are responding to Fox’s statement that the current business model no longer is viable, so they’re saying, ‘OK, we’ll take even less money up front, but in return for back-end money,’ ” the source told The Daily Beast.

It’s questionable whether such a proposal would break the current impasse. A knowledgeable industry observer emailed The Daily Beast: “The not so well kept secret is that some of the divisions at Fox would love to see that show canceled. The syndication deal is killing them” because “it was done with no seasonal caps.. so stations have had the rights for years WITH NO CABLE TELECASTS ALLOWED." Compare that with Family Guy—the animated sitcom that follows The Simpsons—“which is in syndication at TBS, Cartoon Network … all over.” Also, “there is no end to the syndication deal until the show is axed on the network.”

In other words, Fox studio execs might just as soon decide to kill the iconic series as pay the prohibitive production costs of new episodes, and then live luxuriously off the global syndication of more than 500 episodes already in the can.

Or, to quote Mr. Burns again: “Look at them, Smithers. Goldbrickers ... Layabouts ... Slug-a-beds! Little do they realize their days of suckling at my teat are numbered.”