Production delay means 20-episode season
Last week, Fox announced a fall schedule that included animated staple “The Simpsons” in its normal Sunday timeslot.The hitch? There’s still no deal with the voice talent behind “The Simpsons.” And without one, the 20th season of the series could be in jeopardy. While sources close to both the voice actors and 20th Century Fox TV are optimistic that they’re on the road to a new deal, production on the show’s 20th season has been on hold for months — meaning the studio will probably produce just 20, rather than 22, segs next season. Should a deal not be reached anytime soon, that number could be reduced further. Pacts are already in place with “The Simpsons” scribes and producer Gracie Films. The key “Simpsons” cast members — Dan Castellaneta (Homer), Julie Kavner (Marge), Nancy Cartwright (Bart), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Hank Azaria (Moe) and Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns) — are believed to make around $360,000 an episode. A new deal could bump that number closer to $500,000, including various bonuses. That’s more in line with the paydays of many live-action sitcom stars (with the exception of bigtime leads like “Two and a Half Men’s” Charlie Sheen). The-already increased salaries could be why there doesn’t appear to be the kind of angst that has characterized past negotiations between the “Simpsons” voices and 20th. “Unlike the last negotiations, there hasn’t been a lot of anger or frustration,” one insider said. Production was also halted in 2004 when the cast members didn’t show up for two table reads. Back then, they were looking to increase their salaries from $125,000 an episode. In 1998, the thesps (who were then making just $30,000 a seg) asked for a big raise — and 20th went as far as hiring casting directors in five cities to potentially find replacements. This time out, insiders said the talent is looking for a “healthy bump,” given the show’s history as a money-making machine for News Corp. (Coincidentally, the “Simpsons”-themed ride, which features the thesps’ voices, opens this weekend at Universal Studios’ Hollywood and Orlando locations.) The voice talent have traditionally argued that they’re asking for a relatively small piece of the “Simpsons” pie given its status as a global phenom worth several billions of dollars. Indeed, via syndication, international, licensing and merchandising, among other things, “The Simpsons” has been invaluable to the conglom. But the fewer fireworks accompanying this round of negotiations may also stem from mutual acknowledgment that “The Simpsons,” like everything on TV, hasn’t been immune to broadcast’s rapid viewership erosion. With ratings down, the show isn’t bringing in the same kind of revenues it once did. The talent will likely get their pay increase even as the show becomes less of a cash cow. If a deal isn’t made soon, whatever gains the talent may ultimately secure could be tempered by the fact that fewer episodes are produced. One optimistic insider said it could all be resolved as soon as this week.