Do Rising Costs Have 'The Simpsons' On The Ropes?

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The future of the The Simpsons hangs in the balance as negotiations continue between 20th Century Fox Television, which makes the animated series, and the actors who supply the characters voices. How does a TV classic that's been on the air a record 23 seasons find itself at death's door?

Well, the cartoon Simpsons aren't rich, but the real people who bring them to life sure are. Six main actors are responsible for everyone from Homer to Lisa to bartender Moe, and you won't believe how much each makes to do voices for these characters. Try $8 million a season.

Of course, that's a fraction of the untold billions The Simpsons has generated worldwide from ad revenues, syndication deals, DVDs, merchandise — and don't forget the feature film. Notwithstanding that substantial amount of scratch, 20th Century Fox TV has made it clear the cast must stomach a 45% pay cut for the show to continue.

The studio argues that the costs of producing the series have escalated so much over its 23-season run that the studio can no longer support the current model. And the $5 million license fee the Fox network pays — that's Fox, the network, which is a different entity from Fox, the studio — can't make up the ratings decline that's bound to happen to any show that's been on longer than most college students have been alive.

If the end of The Simpsons seems unthinkable, consider the sad fact that seeing a big series end over money isn't unprecedented. The same cold hard economic realities have claimed other classic shows, from Law & Order to the daytime soaps that recently disappeared from ABC.

And the studio might even make more money if it cancels the series. One analyst noted that ending the show would make it worth even more in syndication — perhaps $1.5 million for each of the show's 506 episodes, which would bring in something like $750 million.

Nobody knows how much this is a bluff versus a real standoff except those who balance the books at News Corp., which owns both Fox (the network) and Fox (the studio). But if these companies don't get a bigger cut or salaries don't drop, The Simpsons could be no more.

And for fans, there aren't enough donuts in the world to make up for that kind of disappointment.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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