Do Rising Costs Have 'The Simpsons' On The Ropes?

Oct 5, 2011
Originally published on October 5, 2011 9:24 pm

The future of the The Simpsons hangs in the balance as negotiations continue between 20th Century Fox Television, which makes the animated series, and the actors who supply the characters voices. How does a TV classic that's been on the air a record 23 seasons find itself at death's door?

Well, the cartoon Simpsons aren't rich, but the real people who bring them to life sure are. Six main actors are responsible for everyone from Homer to Lisa to bartender Moe, and you won't believe how much each makes to do voices for these characters. Try $8 million a season.

Of course, that's a fraction of the untold billions The Simpsons has generated worldwide from ad revenues, syndication deals, DVDs, merchandise — and don't forget the feature film. Notwithstanding that substantial amount of scratch, 20th Century Fox TV has made it clear the cast must stomach a 45% pay cut for the show to continue.

The studio argues that the costs of producing the series have escalated so much over its 23-season run that the studio can no longer support the current model. And the $5 million license fee the Fox network pays — that's Fox, the network, which is a different entity from Fox, the studio — can't make up the ratings decline that's bound to happen to any show that's been on longer than most college students have been alive.

If the end of The Simpsons seems unthinkable, consider the sad fact that seeing a big series end over money isn't unprecedented. The same cold hard economic realities have claimed other classic shows, from Law & Order to the daytime soaps that recently disappeared from ABC.

And the studio might even make more money if it cancels the series. One analyst noted that ending the show would make it worth even more in syndication — perhaps $1.5 million for each of the show's 506 episodes, which would bring in something like $750 million.

Nobody knows how much this is a bluff versus a real standoff except those who balance the books at News Corp., which owns both Fox (the network) and Fox (the studio). But if these companies don't get a bigger cut or salaries don't drop, The Simpsons could be no more.

And for fans, there aren't enough donuts in the world to make up for that kind of disappointment.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

"The Simpsons" has been on TV for a record 23 seasons, but this could be its last because of a contract dispute. The studio wants the voice actors to take a gargantuan pay cut, but the actors are only willing to accept a big pay cut. Commentator Andrew Wallenstein explains how the longest running sitcom on American television finds itself at death's store.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE SIMPSONS" THEME MUSIC)

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN, BYLINE: The Simpsons aren't rich, but the real people who bring them to life sure are.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

WALLENSTEIN: Six main actors are responsible for everyone from Homer to Lisa to Moe the bartender.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

WALLENSTEIN: And you won't believe how much each makes to do their voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

WALLENSTEIN: Try eight million dollars a season.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

WALLENSTEIN: It's just a fraction of the untold billions the Simpsons have generated worldwide from ad revenues...

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD SQUAWKING)

WALLENSTEIN: Syndication deals...

(SOUNDBITE OF THUD)

WALLENSTEIN: Merchandise, DVDs, and don't forget that movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

WALLENSTEIN: But 20th Century Fox TV has made it clear the cast must stomach a 45 percent pay cut for the show to continue.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

WALLENSTEIN: The studio argues that the costs of producing the show have escalated too high, and the Fox Network pays five million dollars per episode, even though the ratings continue to go down. If the end of "The Simpsons" seems unthinkable, consider the sad fact that this isn't unprecedented. The same cold hard economic reality has claimed other classic shows from "Law & Order" to the daytime soaps that recently disappeared off ABC. And the studio might make more money if it cancels the series.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

WALLENSTEIN: One analyst noted that ending the show would make it worth even more in syndication.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

WALLENSTEIN: Which could amount to 1.5 million for each of the show's 506 episodes. That's 750 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

WALLENSTEIN: Nobody knows what's really going on here, except those who balance the books at News Corps, which owns both the network and the studio. But if these companies don't get a bigger cut, or these salaries don't get cut, well, the last thing Bart might write on his blackboard is, "The Simpsons" is no more.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE SIMPSONS" THEME MUSIC)

RAZ: Andrew Wallenstein is the TV editor at Variety. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.