Television is an industry steeped in rituals. And among the most spectacular of them is the French Apache dance performed every several years by the Fox studio and the voice-over artists on “The Simpsons,” in which they thrash out the actors’ new contracts with a maximum of hair-pulling, arm-twisting and eye-blackening.
This year’s dance began a couple of days ago, when someone representing most of the show’s voice actors imparted to the Web site the Daily Beast some outrageous news: Fox was demanding that the actors take a 45 percent salary cut if they wanted to remain employed on the animated show beyond its current 23rd season.
“The show has made billions in profits over the years and will continue to do so as far as the eye can see down the road. The actors are willing to take a pay cut of roughly a third, but that’s not good enough for Fox,” the “insider” mooned broodingly, like Hamlet.
The primary players on the show understandably feel that if Fox is going to cut in half their $8-million-a-year-for-22-weeks-of-work salaries, the studio might just as well hit them over the head with an ax and make a clean job of it. Yet others would argue that it’s still possible to live fairly comfortably on $4 mil a year – even in Dottyville on the Pacific.
The studio, the insider reported, had intimated that it was considering replacing the voice-over artists with sound-alikes if they would not bow to the studio’s will.
An America that would accept new Donald Duck and Fred Flintstone voice-over artists surely would not balk at a new Lisa Simpson, Fox reasoned.
And if you’ve spent any time in Hollywood, you know the place is simply congested with people trying to break into TV who are convinced they can do Homer as well as Dan Castellaneta — for a fraction of the price.
With the dance officially begun, the studio jumped into action: “We believe this brilliant series can and should continue, but we cannot produce future seasons under its current financial mode.”
Pretty lame stuff. So far, the actors were way ahead.
(The primary players on the show — some of whom provide multiple voices — include Castellaneta (Homer), Nancy Cartwright (Bart), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Julie Kavner (Marge), Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders) and Hank Azaria (Chief Wiggum, Moe et al.).
Then, just as the thespians paused to adjust their costumes as the Daily Beast report sped around the Internet, the studio socked them so hard it jolted their grandchildren.
Out came an auspiciously timed analyst’s report: “D’oh! Possible Cancellation of ‘The Simpsons’ Could Result in Windfall for NewsCorp.”
“The original syndication deal . . . prevented Fox from selling the show into any other distribution mechanism but local broadcast,” RBC Capital Markets analyst David Bank wrote in a report that spread like wildfire among The Reporters Who Cover Television.
“Ironically, the cancellation of the show would allow News Corp. to finally sell off-network syndication rights into cable channels (and potentially to online distributors),” Bank wrote of the possibilities for the series’s 500-ish episodes.
The potential upside for Fox?
“Massive,” Bank said.
Now the press is speculating that this year’s dance could be one of the shortest in years — maybe wrapped up by next week. That would be a disappointment for those of us who have come to love the dramatic weeks-long ritual.