The real reason 'The Simpsons' remains a cultural institution

Fox hit stays a celebrated series despite declining ratings

One of the mysteries of television is why certain series never seem to get bad press. NBC drama "Grimm," for example, has never been a hit on Friday. "Shark Tank" on ABC is not the monster success we are led to believe. "Elementary" on CBS is modest at best. And sophomore dramedy "Jane the Virgin" on The CW barely registers on the Nielsen ratings. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the press. The assumption is that they are all big hits, when in reality they are far from it.

These are only a few examples. The biggest one is the perceived ongoing success of veteran Fox series "The Simpsons." It’s continued to skirt unflattering press, even though I’m willing to bet you haven’t regularly watched the show on the network in years. After 27 seasons and almost 600 episodes, this cultural institution continues to plummet in the ratings.

Once a top draw in the key demographics, erosion for "The Simpsons" on Sunday this season (through Nov. 29) is down by 27% among adults 18-49 (3.3 to 2.4 rating) and 34% among adults 18-34 (3.2 to 2.1), based on the combination of Live + 7 and Live + 3 day data from Nielsen. And losses for "Family Guy," another veteran in the Fox animated Sunday night lineup, are more severe at 48% among adults 18-49 (4.2 to 2.2) and 53% among adults 18-34 (4.7 to 2.2). Like "The Simpsons," the show is suffering from its age. There is only one direction to go now ... and that is down. After all, there is just so long a show can last before double-digit slippage sets in.

Even though viewership has dropped, the chances are good that both "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" will remain on Fox for many years to come. The easy explanation for any series outstaying its welcome always points to a network never knowing when to let go.
Fox’s "American Idol," which is finally ending after 15 seasons this spring, could (and should) have quietly exited a few seasons earlier. CBS’s "CSI" also made it to 15 seasons, but the network had such a difficult time cutting its ties to the franchise that it tried to milk the long-running brand with the launch of a third spin-off, "CSI: Cyber." ABC is currently holding on to eight-year-old crime solver "Castle" longer than it should. And 22 cycles (and 12 years) for the recently concluded CW reality-competition "America’s Next Top Model" was probably twice as many as it needed.

Maybe if the ratios of success for new series were better each season, the networks would be able to address these fading shows sooner. However, that has never been the case.

Before I get to the real reason why "The Simpsons" will stay in production — and remain a "golden" child — let me explain why the others continue. "Grimm" attracts a young male audience, which is appealing to advertisers, and the DVR usage is solid. "Shark Tank" has an upscale profile (also valuable to advertisers), and both "Grimm" and "Shark Tank" are limited by airing on low-HUT level Friday. "Elementary" continues to exist because of an off-network deal on WGN America and Hulu valued at about $3 million per episode. And "Jane the Virgin" gives The CW something it has never had: critical acclaim. There are valid reasons why some shows stay on the air.

"The Simpsons," which no doubt still rests on its historical laurels, owes its continued existence to the lucrative off-network arrangement Fox made with corporate cable cousin FXX in 2013. The deal, valued initially at an unprecedented $750 million due to the sheer volume of the episodes, offers FXX the full VOD and non-linear rights (including FXNOW, the mobile viewing app of FX Networks). And it could reach the reported $1 billion mark if the series keeps producing new episodes, which is why Fox was so quick to renew "The Simpsons" for the 2016-2017 season.

This financial opportunity will translate into more episodes, so "The Simpsons" is not about to end anytime soon. And "Family Guy" will also live on because Fox is not about to abandon its animated Sunday night lineup, even though it has dropped in popularity.

Sheer perception, of course, is another reason to glorify "The Simpsons." The show has been commemorated with … deep breath … a top-grossing, feature-length film; an ongoing merchandising bonanza; that must-experience ride at Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood; 31 Emmy Awards; a Peabody Award; a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; and "Time" magazine naming "The Simpsons" the 20th century’s best television series. All these accolades keep the lovable clan called "The Simpsons" in everyone’s good grace. And, with off-network the true selling point, there is every reason to believe this brood will outlive us all.

Thankfully for them, animated characters do not age!

Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free