10.07.11

'The Simpsons' Lives!

After a week of tense negotiations over television’s longest-running show in history, Fox and Springfield’s voice actors reached a deal Friday. Lloyd Grove reports.

If the best kind of deal is one in which everyone walks away unhappy, then the agreement struck Friday night by 20th Century Fox Television and the cast of The Simpsons was almost perfect.

After more than a week of backbiting and stalemate, in which details of secret negotiating positions became embarrassingly public (notably The Daily Beast’s scoop on Monday that Fox  was demanding that the six principal actors take a 45 percent pay cut from their $8 million salaries), the warring sides agreed to both more and less than they originally wanted.

Fox announced that history’s longest-running sitcom will continue for at least another two seasons past the 23rd season. And the Fox television network—which didn’t want its prime-time Sunday lineup to lose its crucial 8 p.m. anchor—gets to stay in its programming comfort zone for at least a while longer.

“Woo Hoo!” a Fox studio press release purported to quote animated character Homer Simpson in a burst of corporate jocularity. “I outlasted Andy Rooney!”

The press release added breathlessly “Fox has renewed The Simpsons, the longest-running comedy in television history, for an incredible 24th and 25th season, bringing the series total to an astonishing 559 episodes.”

The deal allows both sides to save face—and leaves open the possibility of the cast’s participation in a sequel to The Simpsons Movie—which  made around  half a billion dollars worldwide after its 2007 release.

According to a source close to the bargaining, the actors are still taking a pay cut from their generous fee of around $400,000 per episode—but only $100,000 instead of $150,000 less than they are currently earning. Fox also took the unusual step of guaranteeing two more seasons—a promise that could be worth as much as $13.5 million to each actor, depending on the number episodes filmed.

But the studio—which has reaped billions from syndication, merchandizing, and licensing rights of The Simpsons series and ancillary products, and expects to make billions more for the foreseeable future—didn’t give up any of the back-end profits the cast dearly desired.

While the actors who voice Homer, Bart, Marge and the other iconic  Simpsons characters had made their positions clear in private, the talks came to a head early Friday when cast member Harry Shearer went public in an extraordinary statement outlining the details of the impasse and his suggestions for resolving it.

“[I]f pay cuts are what it will take to keep the show on the air, then cut my pay,” Shearer wrote—taking Fox execs by surprise and forcing their hand in making a deal quickly before things got ugly. “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 percent but more than 70 percent—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.”

But the studio—which has reaped billions from syndication, merchandizing and licensing rights of The Simpsons series and ancillary products, and expects to make billions more for the foreseeable future—didn’t give up any of the back-end profits the cast dearly desired.

Shearer continued in the same vein, writing “my representatives broached this idea to Fox yesterday [Thursday], asking the network how low a salary number I would have to accept to make 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.”

In the end, Fox stuck to its guns on profit participation, but the actors will continue to earn salaries that Shearer acknowledged are “ridiculous by any normal standard.”