Usually, comedies come to an end when they stop being funny. And while you can argue that The Simpsons isn’t what it once was, a lack of laughs is not the reason being cited in this case.
So why would one of Fox’s most reliable shows be coming to a premature end? It’s all to do with a reported breakdown in negotiations between the studio and the six main actors who voice those Springfield-situated characters.
Dan Castellaneta (Homer and others), Julie Kavner (Marge and others), Nancy Cartwright (Bart and others), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Hank Azaria (Moe, Chief Wiggum and others), and Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders and others) each make in the ballpark of $8 million a year for the best part of 22 weeks’ work.
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Nice work if you can get it, so why the impasse? Executives reportedly want the aforementioned actors to take a 45% pay cut. This was Fox’s response to the actors suggesting a 30% reduction in exchange for a small percentage of the program’s back-end of profits (such as worldwide syndication and merchandising).
“Fox is taking the position that unless they can cut the production costs really drastically, they’ll pull the plug on new shows,” said a Simpsons insider with knowledge of the negotiations to The Daily Beast. “The show has made billions in profits over the years and will continue to do so as far as the eye can see down the road. The actors are willing to take a pay cut of roughly a third, but that’s not good enough for Fox.”
Looking at the dispute as a neutral and one can see both sides’ story. Fox would still be paying in the neighborhood of $4 million a person, which isn’t exactly loose change, especially when you consider that the show doesn’t garner the same amount of viewers or indeed love from the critics after an incredible 23 years and counting. The cast, meanwhile, could credibly claim that they’re a big part of the reason why The Simpsons is a sure-fire money winner for not only Fox, but also creators James L. Brooks and Matt Groening, who do benefit in the profit-sharing.
The issue of syndication is widely believed to be the reason why it took ages for Seinfeld to appear on DVD; once the main players struck a deal, the box sets were widely enhanced by features like commentaries. The Simpsons, of course, has been available on DVD for years, so the cast is unable to play that particular card. And so we’re presumably faced with three scenarios: all involved come to an agreement, Fox replaces the current cast with sound-alikes or the plug is pulled for good.
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Glen Levy is an Executive Producer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @glenjl. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.