There was an article in USA Today last month about the merchandising future of The Simpsons. It is a fucking horror show for anyone who understands the concept of Zombie Simpsons. The whole thing is worth reading, but there are a couple of very frightening passages that deserve special attention:
Consumers worldwide spent more than $750 million on Simpsons-related licensed merchandise last year, about half of that coming from the U.S., Fox says.
In addition, advertisers spent $314.8 million last year on the prime-time show on Fox and reruns that local stations air, according to research firm TNS Media Intelligence. That’s down 16.8% vs. 2007.
Holy shit. It’s one thing to understand on an academic level that merchandising is where the real money is, it’s another to find out that merchandising revenue is more than double the television revenue (including repeats). If the Simpson clan brings $750 million in non-advertising revenue per year, who cares if new episodes cost $5 million each? I don’t know how much of that $314.8 million is syndication and how much is first run, but at those kinds of numbers it almost doesn’t matter.
Here’s where it gets worse:
The creative forces behind the show feel the pressure.
“We had a great template in the beginning with really strong characters,” says creator Matt Groening. “Now the struggle is to keep amusing and surprising the audience with stories and characters that they’ve seen for a couple of decades. It’s hard.”
They have to keep the laughs coming. Fox recently renewed The Simpsons for two years, ensuring that it will pass Gunsmoke as television’s longest running prime-time series.
If the show can stay fresh, Fox executives say that their three-pronged strategy can keep the franchise growing.
What that essentially means is that FOX views the continuation of the show as a necessity for the merchandising which generates most of the profits. And that means that the quality of new episodes is almost irrelevant to them, so long as new shows at least look and sound like The Simpsons nothing else matters. It’s not as though the writers are going to create some character that will cause the great unwashed to demand new T-shirts. It’s just going to be more stuff with Homer, Bart, Krusty and Comic Book Guy. The only thing the actual show needs to do is stay on the air to prevent the brand fading from popular consciousness.
Here is the completely unironic conclusion. ”Dekel” is Elie Dekel, “20th Century Fox’s executive vice president for licensing and merchandising”:
Is there anything that the Simpsons wouldn’t sell? Groening says that he vetoed a proposal to have Simpsons slot machines.
Dekel, though, says he keeps an open mind.
“There were times years ago when we probably would not have done some of the products we’re doing today,” he says. “But society, culture and the marketplace evolve. The sensibilities of the show evolve. So I never say never.”
Yet while he hones his strategy to turn the Simpsons into enduring and marketable pop icons, Groening says it’s important to remember that the show itself has to come first.
It’s a 1600 word article and there are only two perfunctory mentions of the quality of the show itself. Both come from Groening, who is very demonstrably not in charge. Quite frankly I’m amazed they let him stop the slot machine. Those things are big money, though the slot demographic tends to skew older so a Simpsons one might not be the biggest draw.
Obviously this is just a newspaper article, it’s not FOX’s master plan for world conquest or anything. But I think it amply demonstrates where the emphasis is when it comes to Zombie Simpsons. Much as I like to harp on the low ratings, if I’m FOX I could care less if the show loses 10% of its audience annually. Even if I don’t make a dime broadcasting new episodes for Season 21 I’m still swimming in money. For FOX, The Simpsons is a merchandising property that also happens to be a television program. They have no interest in making the show incisive and clever because doing so would have no real impact on their bottom line.