The Simpsons threatened with cancellation – will it be Dough or D’oh?

By Nishit Morswala

Few programmes have had as polarising an effect on global audiences as The Simpsons. Following news about its possible cancellation, general sentiment has ranged from outrageapplause, to indifference. And for a show that has been translated into several languages, been banned in a number of countries (including Russia and China, where they have been replaced by more patriotic cartoons), and reportedly generated up to $1bn in profits since its inception – not to mention a supposed further $750m in syndication money if cancelled, Matt Groening and his posse of voice actors have probably had “Don’t have a (cash) cow” ringing in their heads.

A lesser-known fact is that this is not the first time the show has run into financial troubles. Fox was all set to fire the entire cast and bring in new similar-sounding voice actors when the current ones demanded a pay rise in 1998 – until which they were paid $30,000 per episode. Fortunately, the issue was resolved and from then until 2004, the voice actors were paid $125,000 per episode. They eventually went on to demand $360,000 per episode, finally settling on somewhere between that amount and $250,000. The penultimate tussle over money was in 2008, when the actors wanted to negotiate a cool $500,000 per episode, eventually settling on $400,000 – now earning the six principal artists the now-infamous figure of $8m per season. Mr Burns would be proud.

Of course, for every fan hoarsely crying out for its continuation, you have another who says the show isn’t as good as it used to be and has gone from subtle sophistication to crass vulgarity in its humour. Viewer numbers are down 20 per cent – but bear in mind these are just US figures. Leave aside the costs, viewership and supposed decline in quality and you’re left with a show that is not set in a (real) specific city, belong to any political affiliation, or even have the right amount of toes and fingers but still manages to strike a chord with viewers across the world.

Whether Fox and Castellaneta & Co. eventually reach an agreement depends on a number of factors; among them a proposed Simpsons television channel, a sequel to their 2007 box office hit – which generated more than $500m worldwide – and a further $2.9bn in potential revenue that could very well stay as potential if the deadlock isn’t broken.

But this debate isn’t about whether the producers and actors can deal with pay cuts, or whether penny wise and pound foolish (here’s looking at you, Terra Nova) studios don’t want to continue a show that apparently isn’t earning them profits anymore (it costs $5m to produce each episode of Homer & Bart goodness) – it’s about the viewers.

The viewers are what have ultimately made the show the institution it is today – and don’t dare argue otherwise. It’s one of the longest running sitcoms in the history of television, has won 27 Primetime Emmys to date, gained a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, generated scores of merchandising opportunities (including condiment sets and Lisa asthma-inhaler covers), was named Time magazine’s best TV series of the century in 1998 as well as Empire’s best TV series of all time (woohoo!). Marge Simpson was the first animated character to feature on the cover of Playboy, while Bart even made it to Time’s 100 most influential people list at some point – as the first fictional character. There’s even a pseudo-philosophical treatise published on it, and the fans range from affectionate to obsessive.

The fact that so many people – be it the ‘Nedna‘ fans, the critics, the selfless producers – have had such a range of reactions points to one thing: a cancellation might mean that The Simpsons will go down in pop culture history as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, woefully cancelled due to greedy employees fighting with their greedier bosses, or fade away as just another series that went on way past its prime but proved so influential that it generates capital – cultural and financial – for years to come.

Either way, Fox will have to eat their words. Or shorts.

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