Commentary: 'Simpsons' news piques interest of foreign press

Series renewal news big news globally

Hard Hollywood news once barely got a mention in the world's influential dailies published out of London, Paris or Rome. Tinseltown gossip and slander always has been on the tabloids' menu, but real industry news, such as the end of the WGA strike or the fact that the immediate future of "The Simpsons" is secure, would hardly have rated a paragraph.

Not anymore.

In fact, the BlackBerrys at Fox this week were red hot with texts and messages from around the globe after the good news about Homer and his clan getting renewed for a 20th season hit the wires.

Why, you might be forgiven for asking, would the fate of one animated nuclear family raise such passionate interest from Greece to Greenland, from Spain to Singapore?

The fact is, broadcasters all over the world have been cleaning up financially for two decades with "The Simpsons," quite possibly the biggest international TV hit of all time.

Multiple generations of fans in the millions tune in to the series each day overseas; statistics show that about 50 million viewers watch the animated sitcom each week. Someone, somewhere is watching an episode as you read this.

In many countries, "The Simpsons" airs just like the five-days-a-week syndicated series in the U.S., with scores of major channels stripping it Monday-Friday. Antena 3 in Spain routinely has aired it two or three times a day, while SkyOne in the U.K. broadcasts daily up to four episodes consecutively in peak time. It also airs Monday-Friday in the U.K. on Channel 4, where it garners about 2.2 million viewers a day. In all, the series is airing in more than 100 countries.

So when word went out that the voice cast and series producer 20th Century Fox TV were at loggerheads over salaries, a chill came over the series' international broadcasters, says Marion Edwards, president of international television at 20th Century Fox TV Distribution.

You could say they were having a cow.

"When the cast started missing table readings at the start of the production season, there was a sense of apprehension because the series is key to so many broadcasters' schedules," she says. "But when word came that the situation had been resolved, it became a happy news story around the world."

The irony is that most foreign-language broadcasts of the series use local voice-over talent -- many of whom are major local celebrities at home. Indeed, many of the local Homers, Barts, Marges and Lisas have been on the job for the better part of 20 years, though none will ever hope to earn anywhere near the $400,000 per episode that the top "Simpsons" actors in the U.S. are now reportedly making.

In fact, so many actors around the world have been working the show for so long that many are nearing retirement and sooner or later will have to be replaced.

"It's at the point where we have to start making some recasting decisions (internationally) to make sure that the same quality remains in place and that the voices remain as consistent as possible," Edwards says. After all, she adds, you have to remember that none of the characters on the series ever ages.

There's also no signs of aging in terms of the popularity of the series, from Latin America territories to the bastion European broadcasters.

"It's a shared property (airing on more than one broadcaster) in multiple markets such as the U.K., Canada, France ...," Edwards says. "There's a saying that familiarity breeds contempt. In the case of 'The Simpsons,' we have found that familiarity just breeds more love. Every single episode that was ever made is under license in every territory in the world. This is just unprecedented."

That's why the resolution to the "Simpsons" dispute made such big news around the world.

"The e-mails started coming in from everywhere as soon as the news hit the wire and people read the trades online and local coverage," Edwards says. "Everybody was relieved."