By Wesley Mead
On Sunday 2nd September 1990, The Simpsons premiered in the UK, on a channel called Sky One. Sky One knew it would be a hit, surely. Advance press had been exhaustive and excited; buzz from the States was phenomenal. But I doubt even the most faithful of Simpsons fans at Sky in 1990 had any idea it would go on to be the show that saved the channel and defined their service for decades to come.
Maybe that’s a little hyperbolic. But it is difficult to overestimate the impact The Simpsons had on British multichannel television. To understand this, a bit of history is required. Let’s flashback to mid-1990 in the UK: Sky Television and British Satellite Broadcasting operate two competing satellite services, each with an array of exclusive channels. Most notably, BSB has Galaxy, and Sky has Sky One.
Original programming wasn’t really an option for either network, given the budget constraints of such niche channels, so both invested in repeats and imports. Galaxy acquired China Beach and Murphy Brown; Sky nabbed Moonlighting. So far, so good, though Sky were losing out in the (admittedly miniscule) ratings battle. But Sky’s savvy deal to acquire The Simpsons for a British audience – as Murdoch stablemates of Fox, this wasn’t too difficult a task – completely turned the tables. Garnering masses of attention in the mainstream media, including national newspapers and Sky’s own Sky Magazine, the show was almost certainly the highest-profile satellite acquisition to date, and the audience was clearly intrigued.
Thanks, Magazines Galore! Your JPEGs may be rat-like in appearance, but you are truly kings among men.
That first airing delivered tens of thousands of new viewers to the heretofore obscure channel. Given Sky’s extremely limited reach, the ratings had lived up to the hype. Its Sunday teatime scheduling undoubtedly contributed. The 6pm timeslot ensured the widest possible audience could tune in; particularly children, who would prove to comprise a significant component of the show’s viewership in the UK (arguably moreso than in the USA). But what really helped was the hype. Critics and commoners alike were raving about the show; magazines dedicated spreads to Bartmania; TV aficionados were spreading the word about the first “cartoon for adults” in decades. Everyone had heard about the show, and those with the means simply had to check it out. It was rare for a quality television show to be restricted to a niche, subscription channel on its first run; it was even rarer that said quality show was a cartoon about a yellow American family. The curiosity of the populace was piqued, and they found themselves enthralled and entertained in significant numbers. It was clear that the show was living up to the hype, as ratings consistently increased, and the British public really seemed to connect with the universal satire.
They may have been promoted with lousy commercials, but The Simpsons were on TV!
Within two months of its first episode airing, Sky One’s overall channel ratings had seen a double-digits percentage rise – amazingly, beating out those of BSB’s Galaxy. In a stunning turnabout, BSB merged with Sky by November – crucially, keeping the Sky branding. Pre-Simpsons, BSB had looked the inevitable winner of the UK satellite race, commanding higher advertising rates and drawing greater audience. But once The Simpsons had premiered? Sky were the clear winners, home to the highest-rated scripted show on satellite, and driving that Simpsons audience to the rest of their lineup while they could.
Buzz about the show reached fever pitch in the subsequent months. “Do the Bartman” made it to number one in the UK singles charts in January 1991, at a point when only a tiny – but increasing – percentage of the audience had access to the show. (The video’s airing on BBC1′s “Top of the Pops” was the first real free-to-air taste of the show.) Buzz among everyone from the media elite to the school playgrounds was that The Simpsons was the defining reason to upgrade to satellite or cable TV. T-shirt sales, as in the US, were through the roof; two-episode videotapes sold by the shedload, allowing non-satellite viewers their first access to the show proper.
The show remained a significant draw for Sky One throughout the early ’90s. The Sunday-evening episodes were must-watch events. Backlash from wary parents was limited, and the backlash that did take place only heightened popularity among kids. By 1993, Sky began to see the value in “stripping” the show across multiple days of the week – similar to syndication in the USA – and these saturation repeats played a key role in heightening its popularity here, as viewers just getting interested in the show could catch up on past editions more readily.
By 1993, Sky One had invested in a copy of cloud.jpg.
But as Sky and Fox aired its fourth, fifth, sixth, even seventh season, the majority of the country – the 50 million without subscription TV – were wondering when they’d get their chance to catch up on this yellow American family. Sky and cable had increased market share significantly – and it’s fair to say that The Simpsons played a reasonable role in that takeup – but penetration had only gone from 4% to 20%. That left a whole lot of viewers without The Simpsons in their lives. In 1996, though, that majority finally got their answer, as the BBC – the UK’s public service broadcaster, funded by public money and airing no commercials – announced they’d acquired the terrestrial rights to the show. (In the ’90s in the UK, “terrestrial” referred to the four or five main channels accessible to anyone with a TV: BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, Channel 4, and later Channel 5.)
The Simpsons finally got its long-awaited terrestrial debut on Saturday, November 23rd, 1996. The channel: BBC One. The time: 5:30pm. The episode: There’s No Disgrace Like Home. The ratings: …actually, surprisingly underwhelming. Only five million viewers tuned in. Naturally, this was orders of magnitude greater than the ratings on Sky One, but BBC was available to everyone in the country; considering the great British public had been waiting over six years for this free-to-air, commercial-free premiere, it’s hard to say these results were a success.
To be fair, 5:30pm Saturday wasn’t the greatest timeslot. It had the benefit of being kid-friendly, but it was rather earlier than most Saturday-evening high-profile programming. (It had previously been home to repeats of ’70s sitcom Dad’s Army – not exactly prestigious.) But when ITV started airing new episodes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch opposite it, and drawing greater viewership, it was clear something wasn’t right. Could consumer demand have died off prematurely? Could most of those interested in the show have converted to Sky long ago? The Sky episodes were still drawing relatively good numbers, so it was hard to blame the show itself. The BBC couldn’t really risk burning off the sixty-one episodes they’d made a deal for (every show through early season four) with such relatively poor ratings, so they pulled the show, and had a strategic rethink.
The Simpsons returned, after six weeks’ hiatus, in March 1997. This time, though, things were a bit different. It was airing on BBC2. BBC2 had already played home to an array of US hits, from The X-Files to Ren & Stimpy, and it seemed like a logical home for the show. Mondays at 6pm saw new episodes air, followed by new-to-terrestrial airings of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (a combination so potent that 70,000 Facebook fans still remember it); Fridays saw a double-bill of classic episodes, airing until 6:45pm. This time, the ratings were stronger: not in raw terms, as BBC2 weekdays was more of a niche slot; but proportionately, The Simpsons was quite a hit, garnering ratings around 4 million during this period. Its positioning against news on both BBC1 and ITV saw younger and more tech-savvy audiences gravitate towards it, while its early-evening timeslot also allowed children of all ages to tune in, too. Internet buzz among diehards about censorship drew some criticism to the slot (older fans naturally wanted unedited episodes in later timeslots) but the cuts were generally minimal (a “bastard” here, some bloody Treehouse of Horror violence there) and ensured the show could retain the crucial child audience.
None of your fancy store-bought fonts for the BBC.
The late ’90s and early 2000s saw the show peak in audience reach in the UK: between strong ratings for new episodes on Sky and great performance of terrestrial premieres on BBC, The Simpsons was at its commercial zenith in Britain. Perhaps the most telling evidence of this is in BBC2′s move, in March 2002, to strip the show across five nights a week. They’d dabbled with three nights before – Mon, Wed and Fri – in 2000 and 2001, but every weeknight? Terrestrial saturation of an American show was uncommon at this point; some were concerned that the general audience would begin to suffer Simpsons burnout. Typically, there would be an episode at 6pm on BBC, then two or four on Sky One; add in the occasional dabbling with morning and post-watershed slots for the show on Sky, as well as its regular presence on Saturday and Sunday evenings, and some weeks in 2000 saw thirty-plus episodes of the show air. But critics be damned: the figures held up, the eyeballs continued to tune in, and the BBC’s 6pm weeknights slot remained permanent for the next four years. With a healthy catalogue of classic episodes that still hadn’t been aired on terrestrial, the BBC were in a great position, as they were able to “premiere” multiple seasons within a single calendar year (though as a condition of Sky’s contract, they remained at least four seasons behind the US at all times).
Domino’s Pizza sponsored The Simpsons on Sky One for many years. Alas, in 2008, the partnership came to an end, as UK regulations made it more difficult for fast food companies to sponsor shows that lots of children watch. (In a bid to recreate the successful partnership, Pizza Hut sponsored the show on Channel 4, too. That didn’t work out. So now, Shockwaves hair products sponsor the show. Yeah, I dunno either.)
Sky were experimenting with expanding the show’s foothold on their schedule, too. Double-bills had been the order of the day for a couple of years; in late 1999, they looked to use the show as the launchpad for “Skyrocket” (please, forgive the pun), a three-hour Saturday evening animation marathon. Alas, the project was doomed, as Futurama and Family Guy had not yet grown into the cult sensations they would become, and The PJs and King of the Hill lacked a strong UK fanbase. Nevertheless, Sky persevered, trying out Simpsons-only marathons on every Bank Holiday they could find; Christmas 1999 saw six episodes on Christmas Day, seven on Boxing Day, and a seven-episode “Viewer’s Choice” on Christmas Eve. They ran the show at 7:30 and 8am on weekdays for a period; weekend mornings also saw the occasional jaunt. In 2000, they toyed with a pre-King of the Hill 10pm slot for the show, which they occasionally used to show uncut versions of more risque episodes (“Natural Born Kissers”, “Grampa vs Sexual Inadequacy”). It was plain to any observer that The Simpsons was the lynchpin of Sky One’s schedule during this period.
And who could blame them? The show was a seriously hot cultural property in Britain during this period. Dozens of four-episode VHS compilations were released here between 1998 and 2002, typically at a rate of four per year. My data is incomplete, but I understand that each and every one landed in the UK top 10 video chart. The Simpsons video games released during that period were strong sellers, despite oft-derisory critical reception (“The Simpsons Wrestling” got a very weak 5/10 score in the Official UK Playstation Magazine, but it still sold by the shedload here). The comics, rebranded for the UK, sold excellently. Citing heavy appeal to kids, BBC One aired season one episodes of the show as part of their Live & Kicking Saturday morning strand (usually home to Rugrats). Multiple UK-targeted unofficial episode guides were published – compared to the USA, which hadn’t seen any such references printed since the early part of the decade, it was clear Simpsons mania was enjoying a second wind in Britain. As the tenth anniversary of the show’s UK premiere loomed, The Simpsons had greater cultural penetration in the UK than ever before.
I paid £12.99 for these four episodes on video. (Still better value than £12.99 for a whole season of Zombie Simpsons, mind.)
Both BBC and Sky saw fit to celebrate a decade of the UK’s favourite family. The BBC actually got in on the game first; their celebratory evening on 23rd June 2000 included two strong documentaries and a plethora of episodes classic and new (well, new to terrestrial). But from a scheduling perspective, Sky’s weekend-long celebration in August was more revealing, as the weekend culminated in the UK premiere of Malcolm in the Middle, a show they would dub the “live-action Simpsons”.
Some questioned the logic in concluding a Simpsons weekend with a completely unrelated show, but it actually worked effectively. As Sky continued to pair Malcolm with The Simpsons, Malcolm became a breakout hit here in its early years, retaining a significant percentage of The Simpsons’ audience, and actually remained a more consistent performer in Britain than it did during its later years in the USA.
Throughout the 2000s, new episodes of The Simpsons typically declined in performance, despite continued uptake of Sky and cable services ensuring more and more viewers had access to the show. Maybe it was a case of over-saturation; maybe it was a case of Zombie Simpsons beginning to dilute the odds of finding a classic. But as cultural elder statesman, the show remained an integral part of the Sky brand. In deference to the key role it played in defining their brand – and playing a key role in their subscriber stats – thousands of Sky engineer vans across the country were plastered with images of the Simpson family throughout the latter half of the 2000s and early 2010s. As the decade came to a close, The Simpsons, still a steady performer among an increasingly fractured viewership, was used to lead off Modern Family, The Middle and Raising Hope, turning them into moderate hits for the station. It’s perhaps in this way that Sky now gets the most value from the show: it’s no longer the pop-culture behemoth it was in the 1990s, driving potential subscribers to choose Sky; instead, it’s a utility player that’s earned its face on the walls – and vans – of fame. Repeats don’t air quite as much these days – there are none on Saturdays, sometimes only one on Fridays – and Sky spend far more on advertising for Modern Family than they do for OFF. Regardless, though, it’s an integral part of the Sky lineup.
They didn’t even get the blackboard font right. Damn you, Sky!
But what of terrestrial? The most significant event of the show’s scheduling in the ’00s was its move from BBC2 to Channel 4. In terms of audience share and target audience, the two networks were quite similar, with BBC2 perhaps slightly more upmarket. But significantly, Channel 4 was a commercial network: while it had public service responsibilities similar to BBC, it had to earn its own money, through advertising. It was this key difference to allowed Channel 4 to pick up the show when BBC could no longer afford to; as ratings plateaued, BBC could no longer justify spending increasing amounts of public money on the show. (By this point, even terrestrial runs commanded a stunning £700,000 per episode.) It was with clear regret that the BBC had to give up on the show – it contributed towards a shocking 10% drop in their 2004 ratings compared to the year prior – but it seemed the sums were unworkable. So, in November 2004, after a six-month break from terrestrial (BBC had concluded their run back in spring), The Simpsons were back on terrestrial TV.
Channel 4′s scheduling of the show over the past eight years has proved relatively uneventful. After early dalliances with new episodes airing between 9pm and 10pm on Friday (similar to their previous flagship US import Friends), C4 soon found that the comfortable 6pm repeats – scheduled in the same way as the BBC’s had been for the previous four years – were actually out-rating the prime-time episodes; in later years, new-to-terrestrial seasons simply aired in those same 6pm slots. In the early days, the channel attempted a few “events”: alongside the expected “Simpsons Night” on the day they acquired the show, they used The Simpsons as the hosts of their 2004 “Alternative Christmas Message” – an offbeat alternative to the traditional Christmas Day’s Queen’s Speech in Britain, which rated well.
So yeah, according to that Christmas message, Lisa is a Cornish nationalist. Yeah.. I don’t really know why they did that either.
In recent years, the channel has settled into a comfortable, but successful pattern of the stripped 6pm weekday slot sitting alongside a Sunday afternoon double-bill. They remain four years behind Sky (and Fox), premiering season 20 later this year. Viewing figures have been unexciting but fair; typically around the 1.5 million mark in summer and 2 million in winter, down around 500,000 on five years ago. That doesn’t sound so impressive on paper, but it comfortably outrates the shows C4 had previously had in that slot (including Futurama and Home Improvement in the late ’90s) and most episodes end up in Channel 4′s weekly top 20. Increased penetration of Sky and cable should also be taken into account – nowadays, the majority of people can see new episodes four years before they air on Channel 4 – and with so many more channels now available even on the free-to-view Freeview platform, viewership has fractured significantly.
While the new episodes may lack the “event” feel – and the corresponding viewership figures – the punters, the loyal fans, are still willing to fly their fan flag high on special occasions. Case in point: The Simpsons Movie. It earned a phenomenal £13.6 million in its first weekend at the UK box-office, accounting for a staggering 2.6m admissions. According to box-office analyst Charles Gant, a movie typically generates in British pounds one-tenth of what it earns in US dollars; based on those rough guidelines, The Simpsons Movie did disproportionately better in Britain by nearly 80%. (That £13.6m opening figure? Only 15% less than barnstorming four-quadrant megahit The Avengers in its first weekend – and taking into account ticket price inflation and 3D uplifts, The Simpsons Movie almost definitely saw greater numbers turn out to watch). Between that performance, the series’ continued role in shepherding new US imports to cult-hit status on Sky, and its now-permanent 6pm Channel 4 slot delivering consistent figures every day of the week, it’s perhaps interesting to note that in its autumn years (boy, do I hope they’re autumn years), The Simpsons is holding up – commercially, at least – much more resiliently than in its homeland. Yes, there have been ratings declines, and DVD sales have decreased – when you’re talking about a show that’s creatively declined as much as Zombie Simpsons, it’s inevitable – but on the whole, the franchise remains a significant player over here. It often seems like Britain continues to embrace the show even more than the USA.
Considering the fact that the show wasn’t even available to eighty percent of the country during its seven greatest seasons, I’d call that a success.