International auds gradually accepting Bart and co.

LONDON – The international rollout for “The Simpsons” got off to a slow start, but after 9 seasons and diplomatic negotiations, the animated series has hit TV screens in upwards of 60 countries.

Initially, the genre-bending toon with acerbic wit proved to be an acquired taste. “In the beginning there was zero interest from overseas,” says Marion Edwards, exec vp, Twentieth Century Fox International Television. “It was seen as a weird American show. But it is now our most successful half-hour (international seller) next to ‘MASH.’ “

Naturally, the series is a bigger hit in English-language territories than others. Edwards cites Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom as the standout markets for the show. Britain’s Sky Television, a Fox sister company, has run with the show since it first floated overseas and had it exclusively in the U.K. for some time.

“It took a while for audiences to realize it’s incredibly good stuff,” says James Baker, Sky’s head of programming. “Right now it is our most consistent show. It gets astonishing ratings week after week and hasn’t been out of the top five for four years.”

Due to popular demand, Sky now strips “Simpsons” on weekday evenings and double-bills a new and a classic episode on Sunday evenings. As with several other U.S. series, Sky shares the show with pubcaster BBC, which has second-run rights.

“Sky audiences are identifying with Homer,” adds Baker with a laugh. “We have a deeply dysfunctional group of viewers.”

Oz is another steady territory for the “The Simpsons,” where Ten Network has first-run, free-to-air rights and rerun rights to the show.

“The cheekiness of the show appeals in the Australian market,” says Edwards, adding that Simpson merchandise was a hit Down Under. Additionally, synergy with Fox affiliated companies in Australia proved the show is a valuable brand with which to built pay-TV subscribership. Studio execs say “The Simpsons” was an integral part of the launch of Foxtel, the Fox pay-TV venture in Australia.

There are also some foreign markets where “The Simpsons” plays above expectation. For instance, in Mex-ico on TV Azteca, the taxicab yellow family has found many a compadre.

But on the whole, however, foreign-language markets have been tougher nuts to crack for “The Simpsons.”

In Japan, where the show now runs on pay-channel Wowow, there was the “four finger problem,” notes Edwards. Apparently, the unique physical attributes of Simpsonian folk were a difficult local challenge. Having fewer than five digits in Japanese culture could signal a lower-class status (as in butcher’s occupational hazard), and thus a tough-sell to glamour-loving Japanese auds.

The Asians generally also had a problem with Bart Simpson’s insolence and disrespectfulness towards his elders. But after several more sales attempts from Fox, the region’s buyers eyed Bart’s adorable little sis, Lisa, and suddenly changed their tune. “It then became: ‘We love Lisa,’ ” jokes Edwards.

In the Czech Republic, audiences complained about “ugly” animation styles and offensive writing, reports Czech TV’s acquisition chief Jan Rubes. “We have people who love ‘The Simpsons’ and people who hate the show,” he says. “No one is in the middle.”

The show is dubbed with leading Czech celebs subbing for the original voices. Marge’s hoarse utterances, for instance, are read by popular local comedian Jiri Labus.

Rubes adds that Czech TV programs the show as “an extreme series” on their more arty second channel. It caters to students and the intellectual set, who have elevated “The Simpsons” to cult status.

Similarly, in Finland, local broadcaster MTV3 airs “The Simpsons” during a special Sunday afternoon niche block aimed at trendy youngsters. “We program ‘The Simpsons’ with ‘Beverly Hills 90210,’ ‘Friends,’ ‘Suddenly Susan’ and a music program,” says Mervi Rouvinen, MTV3′s series acquisition executive, who notes that the show is subtitled rather than dubbed, as is the norm in Scandinavia. “It’s the most-watched time period for 15-30 year olds.” While MTV3 has programmed the show in early primetime, it wasn’t deemed wide enough to lure Finnish auds in later primetime hours.

As is the trend domestically, multiple viewings doesn’t seem to hurt the appeal of show in the international marketplace. Unlike most TV fare, says Edwards, “The Simpsons” plays in original primetime, stripped and on basic cable.

In fact, due to potential over-saturation and the adult bent of the show, Fox recently had to turn down an overseas deal for a morning TV timeslot.

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