Mmmmm... contract renewal. Things were looking grim a week ago for The Simpsons, as the possibility loomed that a new deal between the voice actors and 20th Century Fox TV might not happen.
Now, with a new pact in place and a 24th and 25th season secure, The Simpsons executive producer Al Jean tells TV Guide Magazine that the negotiations had actually been going on for months without resolve. Things began to turn around last week after he and fellow executive producers Matt Groening and James L. Brooks sat down with the stars.
"I was always cautiously optimistic," Jean says. "I work for Fox but I represent the show, and I love the cast, so I don't get involved until the very end where we say, 'OK there will be a deal or not a deal, it's not up to me but I hope there is.' When we talked to the cast at that point I was very optimistic; it was very clear to me how much they loved the show and how much they wanted to continue to do it."
Even though the deals are between 20th Century Fox TV and the actors, Brooks has been known to smooth things between both sides in the past — and his attorney, Sam Fischer, has occasionally stepped in to resolve stalemates during previous standoffs.
Jean won't divulge specifics of how this negotiation turned around (the actors had wanted a piece of the show's back-end profits, but 20th Century Fox TV made it clear that wasn't an option), but says, "It's always helpful to have two powerful guys, Jim and Matt; they want the show to continue but want it to be a good show. Their motives are clear."
Now, even though it's been speculated that the 25th season might be The Simpsons' last, Jean says there's no reason to believe the show won't continue long beyond that. He also gives some insight into when fans can expect a second Simpsons movie in theaters.
TV Guide Magazine: It was a week of uncertainty, but it led up to this being resolved rather quickly. Walk me through what happened. Was there was a moment where you thought maybe this was all over?
Al Jean: It was definitely serious in that we would not have been brought back at the same amount the show now costs. Fox had actually come to us months ago with an analysis basically saying, DVD sales are less, foreign revenues are less, and we're a really expensive show. They said, "This is what we have to get the budget down to," and this was shared with the cast some time ago. And it just became public a week ago, and that's when everything turned from a "negotiation" to an "impasse." We got mislabeled by the reporting. One thing that was really untrue, it was never discussed to do just one more year. It was always going to either end, or do at least two more years.
In terms of the mortality of the show, I wound up being in a bad car accident on Thursday, although I'm fine. But when you go through that, you're not going, "I'm thinking about the mortality of The Simpsons." You're just glad you're alive. Yeah, there's a chance The Simpsons could have ended, but it didn't, because we value every person's contribution, especially the cast, and we also love the show and want to keep doing it.
TV Guide Magazine: The Simpsons renegotiations generally happen in the spring. Why did this all go down right now?
Jean: The network said, either we get a deal where we're set, or we will just announce that we're going off the air. We would have prepared an ending for the show, which we still needed time to do, even though it would have been a year from now.
TV Guide Magazine: The idea of recasting the roles wasn't an option this time (like it was during an earlier renegotiation more than a decade ago). Why was that not on the table?
Jean: Every negotiation I've ever been involved in, it hasn't been an option. These actors are these characters. There's no reason to give people less than what you've grown to love over 23 years.
TV Guide Magazine: When these studies started showing up illustrating how News Corp. stood to make even more money once The Simpsons went off the air, did that give you pause at all?
Jean: This is one of those things they told us six months ago. This was told to the cast and everyone involved. By the way, I should say there are other budget cuts and have been other budget cuts in the past couple of years because of this. I think the Fox network and the studio, they were really trying to find a way to keep the show going. I believed them when they said the show had gotten too expensive that it no longer made financial sense at the level we were at. But they still loved the show and wanted to continue it.
TV Guide Magazine: Even though it might have been more profitable to shut it down?
Jean: That was a real debate. It's a big company, and there are definitely people whose interests would have been better served by ending it. Those interests were superceded because we're still valuable to the network in terms of our ratings. We still double our lead-in every Sunday.
TV Guide Magazine: Among the budget cuts were a reduction in salary for the producers. Can you talk to where else things were trimmed?
Jean: They're all over the budget. We don't like to talk about specific areas or specific people's salaries. But everything involved in the show, from the animation and the post-production to the writing, yes. But this is the world we live in. Everyone involved, especially me, believes this is a terrific place to work. There are so many economic difficulties that people face now, I would never complain about anything we're having to do.
TV Guide Magazine: As animation production has changed, were you able to find some efficiencies there?
Jean: Digital animation (has helped). There are initial startup costs, but in the long run it's less expensive. I hate to say "cheaper animation" because I think it looks better than it ever has, but in some cases money was saved... With computers you're able to realize different savings as you continue to refine the method. There was a big cost incurred for switching to high def, but now that we're in high def we can realize some savings too.
TV Guide Magazine: When Harry Shearer put out his statement on Friday, what was the reaction, and did it help move a deal along?
Jean: The only comment I would make is that the actors are very valuable and deserve to participate in the success of the show. I agree with both of those statements. The negotiation determines in what way that happens. We would never do a show without them. I think everyone who has worked here for a while [has] certainly done quite well by The Simpsons, and everyone is grateful for it. We're going to move on now and settle the NBA strike.
TV Guide Magazine: Maybe you can resolve Michael C. Hall's contract negotiations for Dexter.
Jean: We actually have a little homage to Dexter in our Halloween show coming on October 30. And we're really proud that our Halloween episode airs before Halloween this year.
TV Guide Magazine: When the two-year renewal came out, we couldn't help but notice how it brings us right to that nice 25-year number. What is your sense of whether The Simpsons will end after that?
Jean: Nobody can predict what the future holds. But the fact that we got the costs down is, in my view, a very big hope that we can continue beyond those two seasons. They never said, "We want to end it." They said, "We want to find a way so that it can continue into the future."
TV Guide Magazine: So 30 years?
Jean: I'm so optimistic I'm upping it to 50 years now.
TV Guide Magazine: You guys are getting close to Gunsmoke's 635-episode record. Is that something to aspire to?
Jean: A little bit, but honestly, you don't do this just to break records. You do it because you think you can still do funny shows. We just had a table read of next year's Halloween episode, which went great. You go to these reads and see how funny it is, and the cast being great, and you say to yourself, "This is why we want to keep doing this."
TV Guide Magazine: Plus, these days, even when you go off the air, there's opportunity to revive these franchises down the road, like Futurama or Family Guy.
Jean: So extrapolating that, we'll be on the air 75 years. Animation is evergreen. I've given up trying to forecast it. I would just say, don't bet against us. We really kill ourselves to try and keep the show funny and current.
TV Guide Magazine: Can you really do a final episode of The Simpsons? That seems like a tall order.
Jean: We've done episodes of The Simpsons that would have been great final episodes, like the one where Elizabeth Taylor was Maggie's voice in Season Four. But we're not going to say, "Watch this last episode and the meaning of life will be revealed." Sometimes shows put themselves in a box by trying to promise that. We know a lot of things we want our last episode not to be. What we do want it to be is sweet, true to the show and funny.
TV Guide Magazine: Is there ever a point where you revisit a spin-off? There hasn't been talk of one since the plans to do a live-action Krusty the Clown show was scrapped in 1994.
Jean: That was the only one that got close. In my view, if you start diluting that universe you start losing something.
TV Guide Magazine: And now that this is out of the way, we can get back to asking you about a second Simpsons movie.
Jean: Oh, come on! I've always been of the view that if we ever did a second movie, which would be exciting, it would be whenever the run of the show ended. So I guess the news is a Simpsons movie has been pushed back another two years at least.
TV Guide Magazine: You're always working ahead of the game, keeping some episodes left over for the following year. Had a deal not closed, when would you have run out of fresh episodes?
Jean: Season 23 would have been the last recorded season, the new episodes would have aired through December 2012, in accordance with the end of the world according to the Mayan Calendar. I guess we beat the prophecy.
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