Why ‘The Simpsons’ matters to Disney+
30 years ago, Bart Simpson and his alter-ego “El Barto” were everywhere: On TV, of course, but also magazine covers and t-shirts, and in video games, doing “The Bartman,” and telling everyone not to lay a finger on his Butterfinger.
It’s been decades since the heyday of “The Simpsons,” and Bart is no longer the draw he once was — or even the star of the show. And yet he’s been popping up on Disney+ ads recently in a pose familiar from the early ’90s: bent over, spray paint in hand, adding some graffiti to the ad to remind potential users that, along with Disney’s most notable brands like Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel, they can find “The Simpsons” too.
Disney has been heavily marketing its new service and working hard to make potential subscribers aware that Disney+ is the home of Iron Man and Luke Skywalker. The fact that Disney+ is also the exclusive home of 30 seasons of “The Simpsons” has flown a bit under the radar.
The show and its irreverent humor aren’t an obvious fit for the family-friendly service. But “The Simpsons” may be just as important to Disney+ as Buzz Lightyear or Queen Elsa.
Are you an adult? Do you want to spend a lazy weekend on the couch watching something bingeable — something familiar and comforting that you don’t have to pay too much attention? Netflix has a plethora of bingeable options (including, starting in 2021, “Seinfeld”) as does Hulu, which is also controlled by Disney. When they launch, WarnerMedia’s HBOMax will have “Friends” and NBCUniversal’s Peacock will have “The Office.” (WarnerMedia is CNN’s parent company.)
But while Disney+ features some of the biggest franchises and characters in all of entertainment, right now it arguably lacks for any of that kind of bingeable content — except “The Simpsons.” That, and the way it could diversify the service’s audience, is why “The Simpsons” is worth billboard space for Disney+.
“Let’s say you’re a 25-year-old with no kids and you’re not into comic books. Disney+ might not be something for you,” Bob Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University, told CNN Business. “But ‘The Simpsons’ is something different. It’s not really Disney, and that could be the thing that might push you over the edge to subscribe.”
Thompson added that streaming services must have “one thing that people cannot live without.” That could be Star Wars or Marvel for some people, Thompson explained, and for others that could be “The Simpsons.”
“Disney has an inventory so deep that ‘The Simpsons,’ TV’s longest-running primetime scripted series, is basically a co-star,” he said. “It’s a testimony to the extraordinary inventory content power of the service.”
So can the long-time series find a home on streaming after being a staple of linear TV since 1989?
Al Jean, the executive producer of the series and one of its original writers, believes the show is perfect for streaming because it “rewards both casual and devoted viewers.”
“There is an entire Simpsons universe that they can dive into as deeply as they want, whenever they want, for as long as they want,” Jean told CNN Business in an email. “If you want to watch all the Sideshow Bob episodes, they’re on Disney+. All the Halloween and Christmas episodes. It’s a fountain that never stops.”
This is not the show’s first foray into streaming. “Simpsons World,” the show’s now shuttered streaming website, let fans watch the show’s complete library when it launched in 2014.
Current seasons of “The Simpsons” will still be on Hulu, and new episodes will go there after they first air on Fox. But Disney+ is the exclusive home of the show’s extensive back catalog, which includes ad-free episodes of some of the show’s best work like “Last Exit to Springfield” and “Marge vs. the Monorail.”
Disney+ has many episodes of “Boy Meets World,” “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and programming from National Geographic, but outside of “The Simpsons” there are few titles that match the widespread popularity or breadth of a “Friends” or “The Office.”
But that’s not to say that this will be the case forever. Disney+ will add more shows as the service grows. One source that the service could plunder from is ABC, which Disney owns. The network has bingeable, family-friendly hit sitcoms like “Modern Family,” which could be added to the service.
But one problem Disney+ will face is that some of the content Disney acquired in its big deal for Fox simply doesn’t fit the brand. For example subscribers hoping to watch “Family Guy” or “American Dad!,” two other Fox animated series with more than 30 seasons between them, shouldn’t hold their breath. Those sitcoms, both of which are on Hulu, may just be a little bit too racy for Disney+. (Disney CEO Bob Iger simply responded “no” when he was asked last month if “Family Guy” or American Dad” would appear on Disney+.)
“The Simpsons,” while at times raunchy, has a lot of heart, which makes it a better fit for Disney+, according to Matt Roush, a senior TV critic at TV Guide Magazine.
“There’s something subversive about ‘The Simpsons,’ but there’s a lot of love in the spirit of the show,” Roush told CNN Business. “‘Family Guy’ has more shock value to it and that works for Hulu because that’s Disney’s service for edgier content.”
Kevin Mayer, Disney’s chairman of direct-to-consumer, said that the company designed Disney+ with “a very simple mission and strategy” to focus on the service’s five major brands. It made an exception for “The Simpsons.”
“It’s a high-profile exception, a great exception. It has gotten a lot of play on the service,” Mayer said at the Code Media conference last week. “We’re proud to have it on Disney+.”
But, Mayer added, the company doesn’t want to make too many exceptions beyond the service’s major brands in the future.
“Might we from time to time make an exception like we did for ‘The Simpsons’? Yes,” Mayer said. “But nothing is currently under consideration.”