Executive producer Al Jean of “The Simpsons” is asked one question more than any other — but after all these years, he still doesn’t know the answer.
How much longer can “The Simpsons” continue churning out firstrun episodes?
It was a good question in season two, worth asking after the show hit syndie gold in season four, and an obvious talking point after 200 episodes or at the 10- and 15- year marks.
But now, 400 episodes and 18 seasons in, there’s still no way to definitively toss out an end date. And maybe at this point, it’s moot anyway.
“The Simpsons,” it seems, could very well live forever. At a minimum, it seems likely the show will beat out “Gunsmoke’s” 20 seasons to become the longest-running primetime scripted series of all time.
“The story we always tell is how at the table read for the 200th episode, (producer) David Mirkin said ‘halfway done’ in a mock weary voice — and got a huge laugh,” Jean says. “Could we get to 800 episodes? I guess that’s not so funny, either. The truth of the matter is, we love doing it, and we still have stories that we love telling.”
The one wild card, notes Jean: the show’s voice actors. The thesps have conducted several tense renegotiations with 20th Century Fox TV through the years — in 1998, the studio went as far as to hold casting calls for potential replacements.
Jean notes that the cast’s latest deal ends at the end of this year — but given the job security (and the increased notoriety the companion movie will offer this summer), there’s no sign yet that the stars are interested in ending their run.
“I think it would be a wonderful thing for this to become the longest-running scripted series ever,” says 20th Century Fox TV prexy Gary Newman. “That requires a lot of people signing on for new deals, and that’s always challenging. But I’m hopeful that everyone will want to stick around.”
From the corporate side, there’s even less of an incentive to shut “The Simpsons” down. Most agree that News Corp.’s appetite for the show possibly won’t ever wane, given the kind of money it generates.
“The Simpsons” reps a multibillion dollar industry for News Corp.; the licensing and merchandising alone has been worth at least $5 billion for the company. That’s a great incentive to continue, even if it’s no longer technically necessary to produce more episodes.
“We’ve already reached the level where we don’t need to make any more,” Newman says. “But there’s always going to be a financial value in making shows the audience embraces the way they embrace ‘The Simpsons.’ ”
Even in its 18th year, “The Simpsons” is the No. 3 comedy on all of TV among adults 18-49, and is easily Fox’s top-rated laffer. Fox Entertainment prexy Peter Liguori believes “The Simpsons” will all but outlast everyone at the network.
“There will be many more network presidents who will have the honor of being associated with ‘The Simpsons,’ ” he says. “It’s every bit as sharp as it was in episode two. It remains a great anchor for our Sunday-night lineup and is one less reason to have gray hair.”
And with new distribution channels emerging almost over- night in this new-media age, Newman points out that no one knows where and how people will be watching “The Simpsons” 10 years down the road.
“None of us fully understands what distribution is going to look like several years from now,” Newman says. “That’s especially true if you believe that traditional syndication markets are not what the future looks like, but rather the future is electronic distribution of shows to the consumer through sell-through.
“It feels like you can’t have enough episodes of a series to be able to rotate them through those distribution avenues and make them feel fresh.”
Only the beginning
But that’s in the future. Right now, “The Simpsons” remains an off-net syndie powerhouse, printing money for Twentieth TV prexy-COO Bob Cook.
When asked how much money “The Simpsons” has brought in from syndication all these years, Cook quips, “Kazillions.” At 400 episodes, Cook has more than enough segs to air in off-net every day for more than a year. And, he admits he licks his lips at the prospect of selling the second cycle of “The Simpsons” in off-net — something that can only happen after the show goes off the air.
“I hope I will be around when that kicks in — that would be nice,” Cook says.
But Cook isn’t anxious to see that second cycle just yet. By keeping “The Simpsons” in firstrun, the show has remained relevant — and that has kept the off-net episodes on top of every syndie chart.
“The more we can develop new episodes, the more this show stays at the forefront of syndication, as well as the forefront of network TV, and the (more) relevancy that it has with respect to pop culture and everything else,” Cook says. “It continues to increase its value.”
Keeping “The Simpsons” alive and in firstrun also benefits Fox licensing and marketing, says division topper Elie Dekel.
“It continues to be the most significant part of our licensing business,” says Dekel, who pegs it at 50% or more of Fox’s licensing and merchandising. “As the TV show has succeeded so well in worldwide territory, so has licensing and consumer product.”
Dekel is less concerned than most of his counterparts with whether “The Simpsons” will remain in firstrun for years to come. Even if “The Simpsons” retires from producing new episodes, the franchise will be viable as a license for decades.
“It certainly has ‘evergreen’ written all over it,” Dekel says. “We often refer to the brand as a living classic. Very few properties have been in the marketplace for 18 years and continue to be renewed each week.”
As an international property, any decision to pull the plug on “The Simpsons” wouldn’t have an immediate effect overseas, where most territories are still several seasons behind. Globally, “The Simpsons” averages 40 million viewers and regularly airs in 75 countries.
“It’s the most successful show in TV history,” says Mark Kaner, president of 20th Century Fox Intl. TV. “It seems to defy all traditional barriers. It’s remarkable in so many ways; it’s bulletproof.”
All sides expect “The Simpsons Movie” will only help revive even more interest in the show — bringing back fans who may have strayed, and introducing yet another generation to Homer and Co.
“This is a great way to revitalize the show and become the coolest thing in the world again,” Jean says. “After 18 years, it’s hard to be the freshest thing around. But the movie lets us be.
“As for the show, we just want to continue for a long time to come.”