Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Why Is 'The Simpsons' STILL Not Available to Stream Online?

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.

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  • Matt

    the better question is when are they finally going to cancel this rotting corpse of a program

  • Nick
    • Barbara

      Ssshhh! We need to keep that site relatively secret so FOX won't come and shut it down :/

      • Person

        Too late :(

  • why did you write this?

    so in other words, there's still no information and you don't know? cool article

  • jerry

    There are a lot of grammatical errors in this article.

  • Tiger Blam

    I've posted a link to where you can watch all episodes of The Simpsons and the movie, but Splitsider deleted it. I guess they don't want people to know that this article is bullshit, as if it could be any less obvious.

    • Elshi

      There's a distinct difference between being available online (almost anything is if you look hard enough) and being legally available online.

      • Tiger Blam

        Yeah, one is free as per the creators intention, and one is supporting the outdated tradition of giving money to terrible leeches who strive to make money of other people's art.

        • morley

          The site you linked to sells advertising. They are the textbook example of making money off of other people's art. 20th Century Fox at least took on the risk of creating the show, and is not reaping the rewards for that risk. Your righteous indignation is not justified.

          • Tiger Blam

            If art is available for free to the general public, through showing a few advertisements, then more people will still be able to enjoy the art for free, instead of keeping it to an elite few. Copyright holders provide absolutely nothing.

  • Erich617

    It doesn't belong to all of us. It belongs to 20th Century Fox, and–just like all broadcast television– it was deficit financed. Any serious discussion of syndication and streaming rights should at least mention deficit financing.

    This comes as a surprise to a lot of people (including long-time Simpsons writer George Meyer, who takes every chance he can to decry advertising), but network television was created so that local affiliates could sell airtime to advertisers. This is still the most profitable model. And, in making money off of episodes of The Simpsons, 20th is also subsidizing all its less successful series (which would be all of them).

    Television is a business, and shows are products. Executives will sell products on the market that offer the highest return. If the executives at 20th haven't made The Simpsons available to stream yet (and have also been incredibly aggressive about shutting down any bootlegged footage), it's because they know that it would simply not be as profitable. It's not because they haven't thought of it or because of fans' nostalgia.

    • hughster1

      Executives don't "know that it would simply not be as profitable". They think it would not be as profitable. Believe it or not, business executives are not infallible or omniscient. The point of the article is that the show is operating under an old-school paradigm. Maybe that's right, maybe that's wrong. But the fact that Fox is doing something doesn't mean it's the best, profit-maximizing choice. Although the analogy isn't perfect, streaming certainly has worked out to more profits for AMC and Sony with "Breaking Bad."

      • Erich617

        Well, whoever you are, I don't have access to 20th's entire financial report, but I assume that the executives responsible have reviewed the projections and decided that it would still be more profitable to sell The Simpsons into strip syndication and then into the cable market than to stream the back catalog.

        The Breaking Bad analogy is not really relevant since cable networks arrange different licensing fees with studios and have different schedules. On top of which, Breaking Bad was not released on Netflix until about a week before a new season premiered, which was designed to prime viewers to watch the new season. This works for a heavily serialized drama with a limited number of episodes, but nobody expected Breaking Bad to enter the syndication market, so the best use of the back catalog was to increase ratings for new episodes.

        While the article makes the point that The Simpsons is operating under an old-school paradigm, what it does not discuss is the profitability of strip syndication and how that is necessary to support the studio's deficit financing. Most people are completely unaware of this, and it goes a long way to explaining why network television still exists and why streaming services are just starting to get a tenuous foothold.

        Having a popular comedy with a huge back catalog that can be viewed in any order is a massive boon for affiliates, and they will continue to pay. For reference, neither Seinfeld nor Friends is available on streaming services either, and that's because both are still in strip syndication. In fact, local affiliates still pay for billboards advertisings Seinfeld, a show that went off the air 15 years ago.

        The top comment on the Friends page on Netflix is "Please put this on instant queue!!!!!!!!! like the other 12 thousand people asked!!!!!!!" which should really be the thesis statement for the viewing public. Warner Bros. makes more money by keeping Friends off streaming services and getting paid by local affiliates and Nick-at-Nite to keep that content exclusive. Cheers, on the other hand, is now available in its entirety on Netflix because its syndicated value had dropped enough that Paramount would make more money licensing to Netflix. No amount of people wanting a TV show on streaming video will change what is profitable.

        • Merger bill

          No amount unless it is enough.

  • kubiak12

    I know the Simpsons isn't nearly as good as it was twenty years ago, but it's totally unrealistic to expect that. I'll watch the show as long as it's produced, but when it finally does end, a cable channel or streaming service devoted entirely to the show would be great.

  • broketheinterweb

    I used to watch the Simpsons on Hulu Plus

  • Steven

    If The Simpsons was on Netflix it could generate so many more new viewers of this new younger generation. I'm in my early 20s and grew up watching The Simpsons, some kids nowadays have no idea what The Simpsons is and how influential it's been on our culture. It wouldn't only benefit FOX with the younger generations either, it would also pike the interest of some old fans that haven't been in touch with the show for years. Then the show could do even better for itself.

  • Barbara

    I would LOVE it if The Simpsons were on Netflix, especially since they took South Park down. They have Family Guy and American Dad, but who really cares?

    • Matt Scïence Bounds

      There's still Bob's Burgers and Archer, at least.

  • Chris

    Go to justanimedubbed.tv that website has every episode of the Simpsons up to date

  • Chris

    justanimedubbed.tv has every episode

  • Claudio Ramirez

    No official online streaming?? No Netflix?? I found plenty of sites where I can whatch it online and for free DUMBASSES

    • Dale Key

      who wants to watch on their computer? It should be on Netflix with Futurama, Family Guy, Bob's Burgers so people can watch on their big screen tvs.

      • Tiger Blam

        Who doesn't know how to connect their computer to their tv?

        • Brian of Nazareth

          Plenty of ol' farts like me, including me… that's who.

          • Tiger Blam

            Well, you really should learn how. All it takes is a single cable, and you can watch all the movies and series you ever wanted, for free! ;)

  • Leo

    Wtso.tv has been shy down. You can watch at http://www.fox.com

  • Leo

    I used wtso.net for years. Now it's gone.

  • Pat

    Season One Episode One, proof this article is a lie or in my opinion it is an attempt to get us to provide to the internet lamens what the best streaming sites are.
    I will not do the copyright jerks jobs for them, so here is the altered link from a file sharing service. Vive let information!


  • jace