Upfront 2003: The Programmers – Ay, Caramba

‘The Simpsons’ heads into its 14th year with no end in sight

Al Jean fondly recalls the moment he first realized that The Simpsons was more than just another animated television series. It was in 1989, the same year that Jean, now an executive producer of the show and its head writer, began work as one of the half-hour show’s original employees. Jean, who previously wrote for NBC’s Alf, a prime-time, live-action sitcom with a plush, child-friendly alien as its star, had his epiphany while admiring the plan laid out by Simpsons creators Matt Groening and James L. Brooks.

“We never wrote down to children,” he says, echoing the founders’ philosophy. “As long as it was within reasonable bounds of taste, we figured kids would watch a cartoon, especially one with a lot of physical humor. We always wanted to make sure we had the adults.”

Not that Jean ever believed this strategy guaranteed success. After all, Alf, also intent on appealing to adults, went from a Top 10 fixture to getting dropped after just two seasons. “I always had that fear at the beginning with The Simpsons,” he says. “When a large portion of the audience for a show is children, there’s always an added risk. Children are fickle. That’s why we have this fanatical devotion to make sure the show is really dense and has a lot to offer adults who watch. We think it through to the nth degree. We rewrite these scripts eight, nine times before they get on the air.”

Ay, caramba! Well, at least all that hard work paid off. In February, Bart Simpson and the gang celebrated their 300th episode, and just last month wrapped their 14th season as television’s most beloved—and lucrative—dysfunctional family. The show was recently renewed for two more seasons, taking it through at least May 2005. At that point, The Simpsons will be the longest-running situation comedy in TV history, eclipsing The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, which aired on ABC from 1952 to 1966. In the process, it will have become a bona fide programming juggernaut.

Indeed, over the course of a decade and a half, The Simpsons—hatched from cartoonist Groening’s doodle-happy, antiauthoritarian head—has ballooned into a $1 billion property when factoring in syndication and merchandising revenues. More miraculously, the franchise is still going strong. This past season, The Simpsons averaged 14.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. It is also one of only three of the top 20 scripted shows from last season that had more viewers this season. On a Sunday in May, a Simpsons rerun got a higher rating than the new episode it followed. No wonder Fox gives the edgy, satiric show an inordinate amount of creative leeway.

It helps that The Simpsons delivers its weekly helping of humor for about half the cost of NBC’s Friends. The series’ six voice actors—Nancy Cartwright, Dan Castellaneta, Yeardley Smith, Julie Kavner, Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria—won new contracts in 2001, paying each $100,000 per episode, amounting to $2.2 million per year. “The greatest thing about doing animation is, obviously, your characters remain ageless, and they don’t start to scream and shout for more demands or get movie roles,” says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, a vp at Starcom MediaVest Group’s SMG Entertaiment, who pairs skittish advertisers with entertainment projects. “Never mind the fact that it’s helped define pop culture.”

A fact upon which Fox has happily capitalized. “Besides the obvious financial benefits to the studio and network, The Simpsons was the series that really branded Fox,” says Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox’s Television Entertainment Group. “More than any other show on the network, The Simpsons speaks to who we are as a creative outlet and a company.”

Fox surprised the industry by winning the coveted 18-49 demographic during the February sweeps, but it did so largely on the strength of Joe Millionaire and American Idol, reality programs that share little in spirit with The Simpsons. Then again, The Simpsons has consistently dominated the key, 18-49 age group on Sunday night for years. (Remarkably, when Fox announced its fall lineup, the schedule featured four new comedies and no new reality programs.)

Of course, The Simpsons has something that no reality show has yet offered: staying power. Sure, it’s a little easier when your cast members never age, but the show’s momentum is undeniable. “The fact that the show even grew this year over last year in the 18-49 demo is a testament to how special this franchise is,” says Grushow. “It shows you how much fuel there still is in the tank.”

A Unique Property

From the beginning, The Simpsons was far from ordinary. As legend has it, Jim Brooks approached Matt Groening in the mid-80s to do some animated shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show based on his “Life in Hell” comic strip, which still runs in alternative papers like The Village Voice and LA Weekly. Groening, wary of losing ownership of his existing characters, sketched out a nuclear family loosely based on his own (Groening’s real parents are even named Homer and Marge) while waiting for their first meeting. It would be four more years before Brooks, a sitcom legend best-known for creating The Mary Tyler Moore Show, decided to expand it to the half-hour format.

Beginning with the first episode, a 1989 Christmas special, The Simpsons hit an out-of-the-park home run, instantly becoming the most watched program in Fox’s history. “I always thought The Simpsons would be a huge hit,” Groening recently told a reporter for the Copley News Service, “because I always kept in mind what it was like to be a kid….A show like this would have made me deliriously happy in those days.”

Despite its early success, it has spawned surprisingly few imitators, the most noteworthy being King of the Hill and South Park, neither of which ever achieved The Simpsons’ mass reach. One reason is high start-up costs. “To get an animated show going, you have to shoot five minutes and then say to the network, ‘We want 10 or 15 million dollars to do the first 13,'” says Al Jean. “They prefer to shoot just a pilot, test it, and then put it on the air.”

Fortunately for The Simpsons, the team had years to hone its characters outside the media spotlight. It also hit the ground with a few fail-safes in place. For one, from the very first episode it acted like a live-action sitcom, using a team of writers to generate scripts and employing a show runner to keep things moving and vital. Today the show employs at least 20 writers at any given time. And a cast of more than 50 characters pretty much ensured the show would never run out of storylines.

Another not-so-secret weapon is the show’s deft use of celebrity guest voiceovers as a promotional device. The tradition began innocently enough, with uncredited appearances by friends of the creators, including Albert Brooks and Penny Marshall. Later appearances by Tony Bennett and Aerosmith, both gearing up for comebacks, made lending one’s voice and image to the program the equivalent of spoofing yourself on Saturday Night Live. “It allows them to create this PR overlay that keeps the show very fresh and relevant,” says Caraccioli-Davis.

Over 14 seasons, The Simpsons has featured more than 250 celebrities voicing characters based on themselves, including Michael Jackson, Andre Agassi, Buzz Aldrin, Mel Gibson, Dr. Stephen Hawking, The Who, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, cult actor Steve Buscemi and even Fox’s chairman, Rupert Murdoch, who was portrayed lording over an executive team of robots. This past March, in a world-class coup, the show bagged British Prime Minister Tony Blair just as his approval rating was plummeting over his stance on war in Iraq. Asked why he wanted to appear on the show, Blair reportedly said, “I just want to do one thing that will impress my kids.”

Actual adults seem equally awed. The show’s relentless mocking of well-known name brands and capitalist culture as a whole has somehow endeared it to the advertising community. “They make fun of us all the time,” says SMG’s Caraccioli-Davis. “They make fun of marketing, in general. But then I think it’s kind of cool. If you got skewered by The Simpsons, that means you’re part of pop culture and it means enough people are aware of your brand and your brand’s situation that you can tell a funny joke.”

Even as a merchandising entity, The Simpsons has broken the mold. Because the show itself appeals to so many different age groups and demographics, it allows for marketing opportunities unavailable to few other brands. A recent example is a three-month campaign with Burger King last fall, marking the longest period the fast-food chain had promoted with any property.

Five years ago, the network relaunched The Simpsons’ merchandise line, which includes toys, apparel and gift items. It is currently more profitable than it has ever been. While there are no Simpsons theme parks, the show currently has relationships with more than 500 licensees worldwide. According to Peter Byrne, the Fox executive vp in charge of Simpsons merchandising, that allows for a level of depth and breadth unequaled by other properties. “We’ve just taken The Simpsons into the pet toy category, but we’ve done it as a whole category statement,” says Byrne. A recent fave is a dog chew shaped to look like Grandpa Simpson’s dentures. Talk about family values.

Byrne says his goal is to keep “building on the true equity of the show, which is constantly fresh and innovative.”

A Promising Future

In recent years, observers have hotly debated whether the show still lives up to its reputation or if it has lost its goofy soul in embracing the mainstream. “The Simpsons no longer marks the elevation of the sitcom formula to its highest form,” wrote Chris Suellentrop in the online magazine Slate last February. “These days it’s closer to It’s Garry Shandling’s Show—a very good, self-conscious parody of a sitcom, and itself. Episodes that once would have ended with Homer and Marge bicycling into the sunset—perhaps while Bart gagged in the background—now end with Homer blowing a tranquilizer dart into Marge’s neck.”

Another press wag complained that the show no longer has the ability to annoy social conservatives; in fact, many Christian groups now praise the show for its support of the nuclear family—with a dad who works at nuclear plant, no less.

On the other hand, few deny the show has had creative missteps. After the first season, in an effort to capitalize on the cult of Bart and his wonderfully evocative catchphrases (“Kowabunga!” and “Eat my shorts,” to name two), the writers began making the eternal 10-year-old the star of more episodes—and made The Simpsons seem a lot more like a children’s show. The ratings began faltering and the course was quickly corrected. These days, Homer, America’s favorite Duff Beer-swilling everyman, is more likely to be the focus, attracting adults and kids alike.

Though Simpsons classics—like the November 1991 episode in which Lisa develops a crush on her teacher, played by Dustin Hoffman, or the October 1992 gem in which Homer starts his own religion and God makes a cameo—continue to be lionized by fans, the show’s creators take pride in recent installments, too, particularly those with up-to-the-minute relevance. Al Jean cites a recent show in which Krusty the Clown ran for Congress as a Republican. “Although,” Jean adds, “we also showed Dracula as a member of the Republican party.”

The show’s long production cycle—each episode takes about 11 months to prepare, including a trip to South Korea, where the final digital animation is completed—means the creative team must resist being too topical. In an early episode, a reference to the Soviet Union was cut at the last minute because of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A generation later, The Simpsons shows few signs of flagging. Fox’s Grushow expresses hope that the series will last at least 20 years. In lean years at Fox, The Simpsons has provided an anchor for the network.

“I think they’d really be lost without them,” says Caraccioli-Davis.

More importantly, the series has served as a hit-making launch pad for Fox series such as King of the Hill and Malcolm in the Middle, each of which got its start following The Simpsons. Even in a post-millennial, so-called irony-free age in which sarcasm seems less fashionable, the show provides welcome relief for scores of fans. “People looking for satire of the situation today turn to us because there aren’t that many alternatives,” Al Jean explains. And now, Simpsons fans can get their fix anytime, with the release on DVD of the show’s first two seasons. (Season Three arrives on DVD this July).

Don’t worry: One of the biggest money-makers in TV history won’t getting the big head anytime soon. After Will & Grace became a hit, NBC gave the show’s stars Porsche Boxsters. After The Simpsons became a hit, Fox gave its actors bowling balls.

Behind all the profits, you see, The Simpsons is made for love. “If the cast was willing, and if Jim and the writers felt that the show was still generating ideas that we wanted to do,” says Jean, “I really can’t see the end exactly.”

Alec Foege is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Mediaweek.