Time called it the the best television show of the 20th century, and Vulture voted it the greatest sitcom ever. It’s the longest-running animated show, sitcom, and scripted primetime TV show in US history. It's won 28 Emmys and last year scored its first Oscar nomination. When its first season was released on DVD, it became the best selling television DVD of all time. At the end of its 25th season, which starts this Sunday on Fox, it will have produced more than 550 episodes.
But look for episodes of The Simpsons online and you’ll come up short. Only the most recent five episodes are available on Fox.com and the Fox owned TheSimpsons.com. "That is due to the contracts we made with all the various guilds (writers, actors, directors, producers)," said Fox spokesperson Michael Roach, in an e-mail. "Only a limited number of episodes, for a limited time, [are allowed] to be posted for free streaming." That's the case for all shows on Fox and the other broadcast networks.
And yet, several other long-running shows have made their way online. Saturday Night Live’s extensive archive can now be found on Yahoo, while 14 years of The Daily Show are meticulously archived on its website. 11 seasons of Cheers are now streamable on Netflix, and every episode of still-running shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and South Park can be seen on Hulu Plus. And Fox’s other animated shows like Family Guy, American Dad, and Bob’s Burgers are all streamable on Netflix.
So where, oh where, is The Simpsons? In an email, a spokesperson for 20th Century Fox Television, the studio behind The Simpsons, declined to comment on the show’s lack of online streaming presence. In the absence of an official reason, the most obvious argument would seem to be, "If ain’t broke, don’t fix it." Because, despite the detractors who have lamented the show’s decline in quality for years, the show still does very well for itself; as of last year, Statistic Brain estimated, the series had earned $12.33 billion.
It's likely that one factor is the studio's decision to sell the cable syndication rights to the series. As often as The Simpsons appears on TV, it's only ever been seen on broadcast television, where it plays on affiliate stations around the country. Initial reports said that the studio’s contract with the affiliates prohibited them from selling the cable rights, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Some reports said that each of the current 530 episodes could fetch up to $1.5 million, which would pull in another $800 million for the studio.
The prospects for this sale might be part of the reason that the show hasn’t appeared the web; were all the episodes available on Netflix or Hulu, it could diminish the value of the series to cable buyers. And whoever buys those rights could insist that Fox refrain from putting the episodes online.
That old-model logic — that making something available on the internet makes people less likely to watch it on TV — doesn't really hold up the case of The Simpsons. For one, most people watching repeats of sitcoms on television are not doing so because they’re desperate to see the show, since those people would probably own the DVDs anyway. And given how frequently it already appears on broadcast TV, it’s hardly an exciting surprise to find The Simpsons on television. Most people who would watch The Simpsons on FX, Comedy Central, or TBS would probably do so because it’s on, not because they’ve sought it out.
At the very least, putting all 25 seasons on Hulu Plus, the subscription service of which Fox owns one-third, would almost definitely increase subscriptions to that. But given the uneven history of Hulu (it’s been for sale twice but never sold), Fox may not want to hand over this incredibly valuable asset to a platform with an uncertain future. As Netflix grows in both offerings and prestige, putting the show there seems like the obvious choice. Netflix declined to comment on whether they had attempted to acquire The Simpsons, or what it would cost them, but the company has proven its willingness to invest serious money in valuable titles.
Last year, a tongue-in-cheek Forbes column explored why Fox's tight control over the show made little economic sense, even suggesting that the government should purchase the rights and release them into the public domain due to "the massive welfare that […] would be generated by releasing past seasons." Whether or not the the studio's internet wariness defies the basic principles of modern-day economics, it definitely doesn’t make logical sense in the pop culture world. Already, many fans' love for The Simpsons is more nostalgia than present-tense adoration, which is bad news for a show that’s still on the air. For all the doomsday talk that nearly 40-year-old SNL has put up with for so long, part of what's kept it alive over the last decade has been its embracing of technology — not just the viral hits of The Lonely Island, but the accessibility of clips from past seasons that remind viewers of the breadth of the show’s history.
It is probably true that, if all 530 episodes appeared online tomorrow, a good portion of the initial traffic would be to Marge vs. The Monorail, The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson, and other classics that are fondly remembered. But in time, the show’s other seasons — the early shaky ones and the later, less memorable ones — would be able to enter into the pop culture sphere. Just wait until the army of devoted Simpsons fans (the ones who have created separate entries for every single episode on Wikipedia) get the chance to put together a list of running jokes that spans the entire run of the series with clips. It’s bound to encourage links to newer, less well-known episodes, and reinvigorate interest in the current series.
If, of course, there are new episodes being produced. Harry Shearer was quoted last year as saying he thought the 25th season would be the show’s last, while executive producer Al Jean said it could run for a thousand episodes. If the end is near, the studio might be holding out for one massive payday. But that seems like a melodramatic waste, a way to get people very excited about something just as it dies. Either way, the series is bound to end up online at some point, and dragging it out much longer feels absurd. The Simpsons is decidedly an American classic, and at this point, it belongs to all of us. And we want it online.