Ay Caramba! The biggest new thing in cable in this year’s upfront might be the longest-running show in the history of broadcast television.
This week, FX Networks will hold its annual upfront bowling party for media buyers in Manhattan and the spirit of Homer will hover over the lanes because The Simpsons will occupy 12 of the 22 primetime hours on FXX and represent a huge chunk of the fledgling channel’s advertising inventory.
FXX will launch The Simpsons by showing all 552 episodes in order—plus The Simpsons Movie in its correct chronological location—in a 12-day marathon that will stretch from Aug. 21 through Labor Day.
The network will be looking for advertisers to sponsor the marathon and other events generated by curating the huge collection of Simpsons episodes, according to Bruce Lefkowitz, executive VP of ad sales at Fox Cable Networks.
All things Simpsons will also be available to fans digitally and Lefkowitz is looking to sign up multiyear sponsors who will want to take advantage as fans discover the domain and viewing increases. “I’m really excited about that way we’re going to leverage the non-linear rights. It’s a revolutionary concept that’s going to blow away anything anyone has seen before,” says Chuck Saftler, president of program strategy and COO of FX Networks, who led the winning bid for the rights to the series.
Saftler sees The Simpsons as the booster that will put FXX into orbit. “The things that you really need to get a network chugging are reach, frequency and time spent viewing. And The Simpsons is going to be able to provide all three,” he says.
FXX will run the most recent episodes of The Simpsons— seasons 16 through 25—in primetime, and run the earlier ones in fringe and late night, Saftler says.
For the first 20 seasons it was on the air, The Simpsons was presented in standard definition with a 4X3 aspect ratio. Those episodes are being remastered and color corrected into a hi-def, 16X9 format, restoring them to better-than-original viewing quality.
Classic Series, New View
“The older episodes are going to be seen with an upgraded look and view, so it’s going to be as if they’re being seen for the first time,” Saftler says. “This is a timeless show and the comedy holds up really well over time. We’re going to make sure this is presented as if they were created today.”
On Sundays, FXX will put together a four-hour block of episodes that thematically will lead into new episodes airing on Fox. For example if there’s a brand new Simpsons episode featuring Krusty the Clown, FXX will air the eight best Krusty episodes in the archives. If there’s a Fox episode with an Academy Award-winning guest star, FXX will air the eight best appearances by Oscar winners.
FXX will also be slicing and dicing its Simpsons library for advertisers. Lefkowitz says that for an automaker, FXX could pull out all the episodes where the family goes on a road trip. Or pull out all the Halloween episodes around the holiday for a candy maker. Or all the episodes in which Homer enjoys a pastry for a Dunkin Donuts. Or one’s that feature a brand’s celebrity endorser.
“Context will give viewers and advertisers another reason to associate with The Simpsons,” Lefkowitz says.
Potential Simpsons sponsors on FXX include marketers who’ve advertised on Fox and the show’s licensing partners. But for the past 20 years, The Simpsons has been on just a half-hour a week in primetime, and only on Fox-owned stations in syndication. The move to cable opens up the show to new advertisers. “This is a great chance for brands to be immersed in the most successful franchise in TV history,” Lefkowitz says.
Last year, FX Networks introduced FXX as part of a new three-channel suite along with FX and FXM.
FXX came out of the gate with a strong upfront, but its ratings estimates proved to be a bit over-aggressive. FXX gave advertisers make-good packages and network executives expect added distribution reaching 75 million homes and improved channel positions to boost ratings.
Some salesmanship might be needed this year to convince skeptical buyers to buy all the Simpsons spots that will be available.
“FXX could use the additional audience and hopefully use The Simpsons to draw more viewers to the rest of the night,’” says Neil Vendetti, executive VPnational video activation at media agency Zenith. “I’m not sure we would make a specific push to move money there based on adding one show. It will be based on a client’s appetite for FXX in general.”
A BRAND NEW PITCH FOR WGN AMERICA
This year’s upfront will be very different for WGN America, which is trying to escape its past as a fairly nondescript cable channel.
“Last year we sort of sold the promise of things to come and I think this year we have the goods in terms of original programming,” says Matt Cherniss, president and general manager of the Tribune Co.- owned channel. It will launch two original series, Salem and Manhattan, over the next few months and has more in development.
Cherniss worked at FX (as did Tribune CEO Peter Liguori) but he says he doesn’t want to build another FX. “We want to grow up to be the new WGN,” he says. “I think we want to carve out our own place in the marketplace, but to succeed as [FX or AMC have] succeeded is definitely something to aim for.”
The upfront message for WGN America, which will be joined this month by Tribune’s new chief revenue officer, Keith Bowen, is Brand New. “I feel like in some ways that we’re one of the best deals in town right now,” Cherniss says. “Once these shows are successful and the network begins to gather steam, I think you’d rather be on the train than looking to get on the train.”