It didn’t take long for The Simpsons to become a victim of its success: 16 days, to be precise.
On 29 May 1990, a little over two weeks after the transmission of Some Enchanted Evening, Fox Television announced that when the show returned in the autumn, it would no longer be aired on Sunday nights at 8pm. Its new home would be on Thursdays at 8pm, up against America’s number one sitcom, NBC’s The Cosby Show. Both Rupert Murdoch, who claimed credit for the move personally, and Fox chief executive Barry Diller were ecstatic at the hoo-ha that followed. The show’s staff, from Matt Groening downwards, were incensed.
A rather predictable and not particularly edifying spat then ensued, between a bunch of caricatures: the scheming bean-counters on one side, the precious creative types on the other. That the spat was over something that became such big news in America during the summer of 1990 was because The Simpsons was a big show. One of the biggest, in fact: by the end of season one it was regularly making the top 10 Sunday night ratings.
It had passed from being simply a TV phenomenon to a cultural one. Students at universities were nominating people called ‘Bart Simpson’ for campus elections. A tie-in T-shirt with the slogan Underachiever and Proud of It T-shirt had been banned in elementary schools in the states of Ohio, California and Kentucky. Rolling Stone magazine had put the show on its cover and pretended to interview the family. Bart lookalike competitions were being held in east coast cities.
Into this crucible of hysteria was now piped a seemingly unending stream of speculation about the consequences of The Simpsons and The Cosby Show going head-to-head. The mania fused into a mass of hype that only grew larger and louder as the months went by. Bart versus Bill was soon headline news in everything from the LA Times to the National Enquirer (‘Watch it, Dude! Cosby: How I’m Gonna Flatten Super-Mouth Bart Simpson’). It made Johnny Carson’s monologue on the Tonight Show. Groening and co just groaned.
At the heart of their despair was a sense they had lost a battle over what The Simpsons’ success meant. Nobody involved with the show disagreed that it was a hit. Almost everybody seemed to disagree about what to do with the fact that it was a hit. One person’s concern for safeguarding the show’s integrity was another person’s ignorance of the show’s swelling commercial potential.
Fox’s actions suggested that the self-evident appeal of the programme meant it was now strong enough to define itself more through what it was not (i.e. The Cosby Show) than through what it was. But much of season one had shown that The Simpsons still had a way to go before figuring out exactly what it was, and therefore also what it did best. It’s easy to sympathise with the view that it wasn’t yet sufficiently armed to go into battle with America’s most-watched television show.
When Newsweek put The Simpsons on its cover in April – the first time animated characters had been granted such an honour since a Walt Disney profile in 1955 – the magazine included in the accompanying article a sentence that itemised neatly why the programme had won such broad appeal. It was also a sentence that, with hindsight, helps to account for some of the behind-the-scenes wrangling of the summer of 1990.
The sentence read that, in its six months on air, The Simpsons had managed to become: “A breakaway ratings hit, an industry trendsetter, a merchandising phenomenon, a cultural template and, among its most fanatical followers, a viewing experience verging on the religious.” Most TV shows would be happy if they achieved just one of those things. The Simpsons had managed them all, and mostly by accident. Which of these things was the most important, and in whose eyes, formed part of the reason why the move to Thursday nights stirred up such rancour. The other part was just down to enormous egos.
One of these belonged to executive producer James L Brooks. A decade on from the spat – and long past the point where The Simpsons had demonstrated it could be both a critical and commercial hit – he was still unhappy. “We had the best slot in the world,” he whinged in 2002. “All could have been ours. We did everything we could to stay on Sunday. We felt like cannon fodder.”
Others still nursing grudges more than 10 years after the event were Matt Groening (“It was a big drag because it hurt both shows”) and co-producer Mike Reiss (“There’s no telling how huge the show would have been if they’d have just left us there – it was a dumb move”). All three overlooked how even in 1990 The Simpsons enjoyed almost unprecedented editorial freedom from its parent network. If they couldn’t control its scheduling, its staff could control virtually everything else.
A total of 22 episodes had been ordered by Fox for season two. This decision had been made quite late during season one, however, meaning there wouldn’t be enough time to get new episodes on air in time for the return of The Cosby Show on 20 September. It also led to repeats of season one being eked out not just during the summer but into the early autumn, something that stoked up even more speculation about whether Bart was in good shape to take on Bill.
The show’s reputation as a cash cow was heading in a different trajectory. The marketing of The Simpsons suddenly took off in dramatic fashion. During the summer Fox signed deals for almost 200 spin-off products, including dozens of figurines along with such recherché artefacts as Simpsons air fresheners, beach towels and talking toothbrushes. At one point the company was supposedly turning down over 100 merchandising offers a day.
Unofficial tie-ins proliferated as well, including T-shirts showing an African-American Bart, a Rastafarian Bart and a Hispanic Bart. In July, the New York Times’ long-serving TV writer Bill Carter analysed Fox’s current treatment of The Simpsons in an article headlined: ‘For Networks, the Punch Line is a Bigger Bottom Line’. Carter noted that Fox argued the move to Thursdays would allow the network to exploit more advertising opportunities, in particular film advertising, which it described as “serendipitous”. Carter concluded this sounded “like a lot of serendipity to swallow.”
And indeed where The Simpsons was concerned there was nothing that could now be described as a fortunate happenstance. Slap the family on the front of anything – or more precisely, slap Bart on the front of anything – and it sold. For Bart was far and away the star of The Simpsons in 1990. The rest of the family were mostly depicted as foils and stooges for Bart’s antics, despite the limelight being fairly evenly apportioned during the episodes of season one.
Bart was easiest to write about, however – or at least easiest to reduce to an emblem for the whole series. America’s venerable liberal magazine New Republic took the plunge in July, declaring: “Bart is not a bad kid, just an independent spirit. That makes him genuinely dangerous… By pursuing his own course, true to his ideals, Bart now is even more popular than Bush.”
Things escalated further two months later when one of the Bushes in question, the First Lady Barbara, used an interview with People magazine to label The Simpsons: “The dumbest thing I had ever seen.” The show’s writers penned a response, in the guise of Marge: “I always believed in my heart that we had a great deal in common… Each of us is living our lives to serve an exceptional man.” This spiral of silliness continued upwards when Mrs Bush replied and apologised. It wouldn’t be the last time someone in the White House mistook the show’s irreverence for dim-wittedness.
Towards the end of the summer the UK started to take notice of all this foofaraw. SKY magazine was the first to give The Simpsons any proper coverage in Britain, announcing on its August cover: “Why Bart Simpson is bigger than Madonna.” Inside, Simon Witter wrote: “The hippest haircut in America at the moment is Bart Simpson. Shaved at the sides with a high, sculpted, jagged crown, it is named after the 10-year-old brat in America’s hippest family The Simpsons, an animated Roseanne-style household with mental hairstyles, bulging eyes and massive overbites.” From 2 September those in the UK with a satellite dish were able to see the mental haircuts for themselves, when Sky Television* began showing episodes from season one. Even though this audience discounted virtually the entire population, The Simpsons quickly got coverage in everything from Melody Maker to the New Statesman to Business Week.
Bart Simpson would become huge in the UK over the following months, and in a context almost entirely divorced from the TV series. The mania would reach a peak in February 1991 when Do The Bartman topped the British chart (in the US the record wasn’t even released as a single). The song had been taped at the end of summer 1990, along with a batch of material that would end up on the album The Simpsons Sing the Blues, released in the US in December. Rumours of Michael Jackson’s involvement in this project were given a non-denial denial. Naturally this sent The Simpsons hype-o-meter several more notches into the stratosphere.
By now the finishing touches were being made to the first episodes of season two. While externally a huge amount of upheaval had been ladled on to the show, inside the production bunker little had changed.
Just one new person had been added to the writing team: Jeff Martin, another Harvard/David Letterman alumnus. A couple of scripts had been drafted by freelancers. Two new directors had been hired. And that was more or less it, save for a reworking of the opening sequence to include more recurring characters. This might have made the titles seem more up-to-date, but also saddled the viewer with unwelcome weekly cameos from the likes of Bleeding Gums Murphy and Marvin Monroe.
Finally, after a summer of bitchy asides and moping, the production team made a last-minute sop to Fox. They agreed to rearrange the transmission order so the new series began with an episode focusing solely on Bart. It was a concession of defeat in a battle they never really had a chance of winning; Murdoch’s interpretation of success was always going to trump that of anyone and everyone else.
But it was a pragmatic gesture as well. It would’ve been self-defeating not to kick off the new series with a story about the star of the show. Besides, Cosby was getting a three-week head start in the schedules, and repeats of season one of The Simpsons in the new time slot had already been faring poorly.
Memories were also fresh of the recent fate of Miami Vice, which after two hit seasons had been moved by NBC to run opposite Dallas on CBS, and had immediately flopped in the ratings.
The first episode of season two of The Simpsons was eventually scheduled for Thursday 11 October 1990. It would be up against not just The Cosby Show on NBC but also The Father Dowling Mysteries on ABC, plus superhero show The Flash on CBS.
There was no question Cosby and Bart would beat the other two. Who would emerge top, and by how big a margin, was all that mattered – for some, at any rate, and most of them sat round one boardroom table in the Twentieth Century Fox Television offices. For others, whether the show could be judged a success over 22 episodes rather than 13, and by what measure, was about to become an even bigger concern. Most of them sat in 30 million homes across America.
*Sky Television, a struggling competitor in Britain’s tiny non-terrestrial TV market, was at this point two months away from taking over British Satellite Broadcasting to become BSkyB. The deal was formally described as a “merger” – in the words of Clive James, “the way a shark merges with a drowning man.”