A salary dispute is threatening to end one of television's most beloved comedies.
The actors who provide the voices for the long-running cartoon hit "The Simpsons" are at odds over a new contract with 20th Century Fox Television, the production company that makes the series for its sister broadcast network.
The studio is seeking to dramatically cut the mid-six-figure pay per episode of the key actors who voice the show including Dan Castellaneta (Homer), Julie Kavner (Marge), Nancy Cartwright (Bart), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Hank Azaria (Moe the bartender, Chief Wiggum and Apu) and Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns and Ned Flanders).
In a statement, 20th Century Fox Television said it "cannot produce future seasons under its current financial model."
A staple of the Fox lineup for more than two decades, "The Simpsons" has been a cash cow for Fox parent News Corp., generating billions of dollars in rerun and DVD sales, as well as merchandise, video games and a feature film. But its ratings have tumbled over the last few years.
This season, "The Simpsons" has averaged 7.1 million viewers. That is a drop of nearly 19% from five years ago, when the show averaged 8.7 million viewers. In the coveted category of viewers ages 18 to 49, ratings for "The Simpsons" have fallen 17%.
Most shows experience ratings declines as they age. The conundrum is that production costs rise at the same time because producers and actors typically get big raises the longer a program stays on the air.
The per-episode license fee that Fox pays its sister studio for "The Simpsons" is north of $5 million a show, according to people with knowledge of the terms who declined to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the situation. At that price, the series is no longer profitable for the network, these people said.
Furthermore, there have been long-running discussions inside News Corp. over whether the company could actually make more money off "The Simpsons" if it stopped producing new episodes. The show is in its 23rd season.
The deals for repeats of the show were done years ago and now heavily favor the stations carrying it. Usually, TV stations pay cash plus a portion of commercial inventory (known as barter advertising) in return for getting to air reruns of popular shows. In the case of "The Simpsons," the barter advertising portion of the agreement with the stations that carry the show is long expired and is strictly a cash deal.
Until the show stops producing new episodes, News Corp.'s hands are tied with regard to finding new buyers that will pay more for the repeats. Once the show is finished on Fox, the contracts that News Corp.'s syndication unit 20th Television struck will start to expire and new rerun deals can be struck with local stations and cable networks.
"There's only upside opportunity given the fact that the syndicator would be able to sell another cycle of the program to broadcast, which would definitely include barter and also allow for a sale to cable," said Bill Carroll, a vice president at industry consulting firm Katz Television Group.
Given the strength of the show's performance in reruns, there will be no shortage of buyers. News Corp. Deputy Chairman Chase Carey even talked recently at an investor conference about starting a cable network devoted to reruns of "The Simpsons."
Although there may be financial motivations driving News Corp. to play hardball with the cast, the show still provides Fox with a valuable promotional platform and the characters are woven into the network's identity in a way that transcends dollars and cents.
"We are hopeful that we can reach an agreement with the voice cast that allows 'The Simpsons' to go on entertaining audiences with original episodes for many years to come," the studio said.
News of the impasse was first reported by the Daily Beast.