Fox goes to the Matt

Groening's 'Futurama' seen as companion to 'Simpsons'

Fox Broadcasting Co. is close to ordering 13 episodes of a new 20th Century Fox primetime animated comedy from Matt Groening, the creator and executive producer of the company’s most profitable comedy franchise, “The Simpsons.”

“Futurama” will be Groening’s first TV series since “The Simpsons,” and Fox is hoping to launch it midseason next year. While the original concept is still being hammered out, the show is expected to be set around the turn of the next millennium — the year 3,000 — and it will be both futuristic and nostalgic.

Neither FBC, 20th Century Fox, nor Groening would comment on the negotiations, which are not yet completed. However, the deal is expected to give Groening a potential film commitment from the studio, if it comes to fruition.

Sources said that getting a second project from “The Simpsons” creator will be a coup for the network and the studio, which have been trying to get another series from Groening ever since “The Simpsons” took off.

At one point, Fox considered launching a spinoff of “The Simpsons” featuring Krusty the Clown, but it never got past the discussion stage.

“Futurama” will be coming to Fox after the network finally has found another comedy that’s compatible with “The Simpsons,” namely “King of the Hill.” For years, Fox foundered in its attempts to pair “The Simpsons” with traditional, live-action sitcoms.

Fox execs now appear to be building on the strength of the web’s two animated hits. The network has ordered 13 episodes of “The PJs,” a claymation project from Imagine TV with the voice of Eddie Murphy, which also will debut midseason. When Groening’s new series is factored in, Fox will have four seemingly compatible comedies to play with, and the network could pair each of the new shows with a veteran.

By teaming “The Simpsons” with “Futurama” and “The PJs” with “King of the Hill,” for instance, Fox could have the flexibility to split its comedy strength and spread it out from Sunday to another night. Fox could also launch a new night with all four of the comedies.

With the success of “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill,” as well as Comedy Central’s “South Park” and MTV’s “Daria,” primetime animation is going through a boom period. UPN is now developing an animated primetime version of the comic strip “Dilbert,” and the WB is developing an animated special, “Baby Blues,” with series potential.

“The Simpsons” was clearly the first to revive primetime animation, which hadn’t worked since “The Flintstones” in the 1960s. Groening first created “The Simpsons” as shorts within “The Tracey Ullman Show,” and the comedy is now in its eighth season with no signs of slowing down.

In fact, one source said 20th and Fox are attempting to get the actors who play the voices of “The Simpsons” characters to sign on for several more seasons.

Aside from “The Simpsons,” Groening is also the creator of the “Life in Hell” comic strip, and in 1993, he formed Bongo Comics Group, which publishes “Simpsons Comics,” “Itchy & Scratchy Comics,” “Bartman” and “Krusty Comics,” among others. He’s published numerous books too, including “Love is Hell,” “Work is Hell” and “School is Hell.”

Groening oversees all licensing and merchandising for “The Simpsons,” a franchise that has worked so well in syndication that it has generated more than $500 million for News Corp. over its lifespan. Clearly, Fox is hoping Groening can hit the jackpot again with “Futurama.”

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