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The Simpsons’ future could be in jeopardy

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And a few other series, too

Simpsons

Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox’s film and TV studios means Disney will control some of Fox’s most important properties, including The Simpsons.

The Simpsons, adored by fans and regarded as a landmark animated television show, has suffered declining ratings recently. The Simpsons’ contract is up after the show’s 30th season, set to air in 2020, and questions have been raised over what Disney wants to do with the series.

Ratings for The Simpsons have been dismal, and its continued renewal puzzles some. But The Simpsons is a network cornerstone; it premiered in 1989, when the Fox network was three years old. The show was the network’s first big ratings hit, and obviously its longest-running franchise, making tremendous impact on pop culture at large. It grew beyond cartoon audiences, sitcom fans and television diehards; our grandparents may not have ever watched an episode of The Simpsons, but they know who Homer is.

The Simpsons has survived on its legacy for at least a decade now, but that legacy can only go so far. All shows must end, and Disney taking over the rights to the series is as good a time as any. Disney doesn’t have the intimate, decades-long relationship to The Simpsons that Fox does. While Disney CEO Bob Iger probably knows what would come with canceling the series, it’s not his style to dwell on the past when he can look to the future.

To understand how The Simpsons may be treated, go back to 2006, when Disney acquired Pixar in Iger’s first major acquisition as chief executive. When Disney bought Pixar, Iger set into motion a business strategy that would echo throughout future purchases: figure out what the core identity of the brand was, what people liked, and expand upon that. It was a strategy that Pixar CEO at the time, Steve Jobs, spoke about during a call following the acquisition.

“Most of the time that Bob and I have spent talking about this hasn’t been about economics, it’s been about preserving the Pixar culture because we all know that that’s the thing that is going to determine the success here in the long run,” Jobs said, as reported by NBC.

The Simpsons brand is, in many ways, bigger than Pixar. The Simpsons is akin to Bugs Bunny. The older episodes were regarded as some of the most innovative examples of television, while newer episodes fail to capture that same magic. The reason we’re still watching The Simpsons is because we believe in the brand. We use FX’s Simpsons marathon and the network’s streaming service for the series to watch classic episodes and, from time to time, tune into new episodes if we’re bored on a Sunday night.

Iger seems to understand this; The future of The Simpsons probably isn’t generating new episodes, but expanding upon the brand the show has turned into. That means adding Simpsons areas to Disney’s expansive theme park business, like what Disney has done with Avatar, and using what Fox has already given Disney to the company’s advantage.

Last month, Polygon noted that Disney’s deal with Fox was always about backfilling television content and adding to its streaming service. Iger has repeatedly said he wants to use Hulu, in which Disney now has a 60 percent stake thanks to the Fox deal, as its streaming platform for older demographics. That allows Disney’s stand-alone streaming application to be entirely family friendly, and ESPN can remain its own stand-alone sports streaming package.

After Disney announced the deal on Thursday, Iger told investors that company’s intention was to use Fox TV series — from a number of networks, including FX and FXX — on Hulu.

“There’s a lot of Fox intellectual property that fits extremely well into Disney-branded direct-to-consumer services,” Iger said. “There’s a lot of product that we believe will be of great use to growing Hulu as it already is. Hulu is a more adult-oriented product [that will benefit from] Fox television production and FX.”

What series best epitomizes Iger’s business strategy? The Simpsons. Imagine being able to stream all 669 episodes of The Simpsons exclusively with your Hulu package. And if Hulu can offer The Simpsons, alongside a number of other popular Fox shows like Bob’s Burgers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Firefly, which are no longer on Netflix, it increases Hulu’s value even more.

“Hulu obviously is a great opportunity to expand in the direct-to-consumer space," Iger said on the same call with investors. "Owning roughly a third of it was great, but having control of it will enable us to greatly accelerate Hulu into that space and become an even more viable competitor to those that are already out there."

It doesn’t make sense for Disney to keep paying a full staff of animators, writers and producers on The Simpsons when ratings are in the tank. Instead, it’s much more cost effective for Disney to end the series after a solid 30 seasons and expand on The Simpsons’ brand elsewhere. More elaborate Simpsons additions to theme parks and making the full series available to Hulu subscribers is directly in line with Iger’s plans for Disney’s future.

It’s not just The Simpsons at risk, either. Shows like Bob’s Burgers and Family Guy, which have also suffered from staggering ratings in recent years, could face the same fate. Again, Disney has no connection to these series, and moving them to be Hulu exclusives is a good way of attracting new subscribers and retaining old ones. The streaming platform has just 12 million subscribers, 250,000 of which also subscribe to Hulu’s live TV cable package. That’s nothing compared to Netflix’s 100 million.

Exclusivity onThe Simpsons isn’t just a good way of attracting people willing to spend $8 a month to ensure they can watch any episode of the series whenever they like, but it’s a good way to hook international subscribers if Disney wants to offer Hulu subscriptions outside the United States.

As Tim Nollen, an analyst with Macquarie Capital, told Bloomberg, those Fox assets would be able to offset losses that Iger is seeing in other ventures, including traditional cable revenue and low subscriber signups on Hulu.

“For Disney, scale and distribution together matter more now, and this would give it both in droves,” Nollen said.

Only time will tell what happens to The Simpsons, but this may mark the beginning of the end for television’s most beloved animated series.