Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

In one of television’s biggest syndication deals, “The Simpsons,” the longest-running scripted show in TV history, will finally be moving to cable television — and, not too surprisingly, staying in the family.

That’s the 21st Century Fox family, which owns the studio that created “The Simpsons,” (20th Century Fox Television); the network that broadcasts it (Fox) and now the cable network, FXX, that has acquired both cable and streaming rights to the more than 550 episodes.

Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but a representative of one of the other companies that pursued the package said that the bidding was highly competitive and estimated that the per-episode figured reached $1.5 million to $1.6 million. That would put the value of the deal at close to $900 million.

The 24 seasons of shows that have been completed will begin airing in August 2014. The 25th season, currently in production, will be available the month after.

The rights include not only the exclusive exposure on FXX, the new comedy offshoot of the FX Network, but also video-on-demand and streaming rights. By locking up these platforms, FXX can control the way it uses them, while keeping the shows away from competitors. That means, for the foreseeable future, that the episodes are likely to contain some form of advertising and not find their way onto increasingly popular ad-free subscription services like Netflix or Amazon.

The shows will be streamed online by FXNOW, a mobile viewing app that FX Networks plans to introduce soon.

Other companies that most likely would have been interested in the Simpsons package include Turner Broadcasting, on behalf of two of its cable networks: TBS, which mainly offers repeats of hit network comedies, and Adult Swim, which has carved out an identity substantially on re-runs of other Fox animated comedies like “Family Guy” and “American Dad.” Viacom and NBC Universal were also widely mentioned as potential bidders.

When Gary Newman, the chief executive of 20th Century Fox Television, announced the prospective cable sale in September, he called the show “the greatest television asset of all time,” emphasizing that with 530 episodes completed (and at least one more season of 24 original shows scheduled) “The Simpsons” could run as a nightly entry on a cable network for more than a year and not repeat an episode for more than a year.

Of course, “Simpsons” episodes have not been locked away in a closet, like prized baseball cards. For two decades, repeats of “The Simpsons” have been widely seen on local broadcast television stations. Every other sitcom hit of recent vintage, from “Seinfeld” to “The Big Bang Theory,” has been made available in multiple sales to broadcasters and cable networks alike. Studios rarely leave such opportunities on the table.

But “The Simpsons” was locked into an unusual — and now vintage — deal. The show was first sold into syndication in 1993. While an enormous hit for Fox, “The Simpsons” always stood out because it was animated. When Fox tried to place live-action comedies adjacent to it, they never really worked.

So the stations paying hefty rights fees insisted on maintaining exclusivity — meaning no sale to a cable network for as long as they were buying new seasons of reruns. “The Simpsons” — with a cast that never visibly aged — kept making new episodes on Fox, and the syndication contracts kept going.

Until now. The studio has finally worked a way to open the cable window, one that has long been estimated to be worth a fortune to a show that already is one of the greatest money-makers in entertainment history, considering the value that has been reaped from merchandising, a theme park attraction and a theatrical movie.

For the fledgling FXX network, the deal is clearly intended to be a foundation stone. FX, known mainly for well-regarded dramas like “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Justified” and “Sons of Anarchy,” spun off its comedy lineup (“Louie,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) in the all-comedy network starting last September.

The results so far have been lackluster. Ratings for shows that have moved from FX to FXX have been nothing close to what they were in the past. In the most prominent example, the late-night talk show, “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell,” had more than 300,000 viewers on FX but fell to fewer than 50,000 on FXX and was canceled this week.

Now FX will have a core of comedy programming with the longest track record in television history.

Paying the hefty price has less sting because the money essentially moves from one corporate pocket to another — minus the many millions that will be paid to the profit participants in the show, which include, among many others, Matt Groening, who created the original comic characters, and James Brooks, the famed television and movie creator, who brought the show to Fox 25 years ago.