The Simpsons is on the verge of turning "D'oh!" into even more dough. In a move greatly anticipated by several networks, Homer Simpson and family may finally be on their way to cable.
According to multiple insiders, Twentieth Television (the syndication arm of Simpsons producer 20th Century Fox Television) is getting ready to shop the show to cable networks for the first time, and will do so some time within the next year. As word spreads of the upcoming Simpsons sale, several cable executives acknowledge that they would love to get their hands on the long-running hit. "There's a pent-up demand for it," says one source.
What took so long? When The Simpsons was first sold into broadcast syndication in 1993, it was an anomaly: an animated show in a sea of live-action repeats. TV stations, nervous about the prospects, demanded exclusivity from cable as long as new episodes were being made by Fox in primetime. No one involved could have predicted that The Simpsons would still be churning out fresh shows 20 years later.
"There have been additional contracts to add episodes," says Katz Media vice president and director of programming Bill Carroll. "But the first one signed is still in effect. It was a unique time and place and a unique show, and thus the deals were advantageous to the stations."
Analysts have long said that once The Simpsons ends its run on Fox, Twentieth will be able to sell its more than 530 episodes to a cable network for as much as $1.5 million per show. That would add nearly another $1 billion to what's already a multibillion-dollar franchise. The Simpsons is believed to have generated billions of dollars in licensing and merchandising alone.
With the company now mulling a cable sale, it's unclear what has changed. There has been speculation that The Simpsons might end after next year's 25th season, which would mean the iron-clad exclusive deal with stations would change. Or perhaps Twentieth has found a way to alter the existing broadcast-syndication deal with TV stations and finally add cable to the mix.
According to insiders, the cable entity that lands The Simpsons will secure a complete deal giving it the right to distribute all episodes of the comedy across any or all of its channels. It would then be up to the buyer to decide how they divided the episodes among their outlets. News Corp. COO Chase Carey even hinted a few years ago that an all-Simpsons channel might even be in the offing.
Most cable executives believe that Fox's sister channel FX will likely have first crack at the property. FX is in the process of launching a younger-skewing network, FXX, and repeats of The Simpsons could drive interest. Plus, 20th Century Fox is protective of The Simpsons and may not want to see a competitor benefit from the brand.
On the other hand, Twentieth may want to bring in fresh cash from outside the company, rather than recycle its own money. Twentieth is also no doubt cognizant of the fact that The Simpsons' profit participants, like executive producers Matt Groening and James L. Brooks, will be watching closely to make sure the company signs the most lucrative deal. When FX relaunched in 1997 by offering cable-syndication runs of The X-Files and NYPD Blue, those deals led to lawsuits by X-Files star David Duchovny and NYPD Blue executive producer Steven Bochco, who stood to gain millions and felt that money had been left on the table.
Beyond FX, other suitors might include Turner, which holds the cable-syndication rights to most of Fox's other animated properties, including Family Guy, American Dad, and King of the Hill. The Simpsons would fit on both Turner's Adult Swim and TBS, which just struck a deal to air American Dad's first-run episodes next year. (They will no longer air on Fox.)
Viacom could also be interested in putting The Simpsons on its networks, including Comedy Central, Spike, Nick at Nite, TV Land and MTV. NBC Universal recently bought Modern Family repeats for $1.5 million per episode as it expands USA's comedy imprint; The Simpsons would be another get. An FX vs. Turner vs. Viacom vs. NBC Universal battle will likely drive up the price of The Simpsons in cable — not bad for a show entering its 25th season. A dark horse could also enter the bidding, such as CBS Corp. and Lionsgate, which might want to make a splash by airing the comedy on their TVGN joint venture.
Perhaps The Simpsons should add another catchphrase to its lexicon: "Ka-ching!"
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