Lean media example: The Simpsons

By | December 3, 2015

The Simpsons Stamps Roy Patrick Tan Flickr CC By-SA 2.0

Earlier we looked at a lean media example of a rock supergroup, Led Zeppelin. Today we will examine The Simpsons, the long-running Fox animated series. For a primer on lean media, check out the intro, the lean media framework, and its fat media counterpart.

Production team: In the late 1980s, writer/director James L. Brooks was the producer of the sketch comedy series The Tracey Ullman Show on the nascent Fox network. He needed short animated clips to serve as a bumper before commercials, and turned to cartoonist Matt Groenig, who worked with a small team of animators, directors, and actors from the Ullman Show to produce the soft launch version of The Simpsons beginning in 1987. The half-hour series debuted in 1989, steered by Sam Simon, a writer-producer who had also worked on the Ullman Show.

Budget: News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and Fox CEO Barry Diller insisted that Fox’s shows in the late 1980s were all done on a budget, whether it was an animated program like The Simpsons or early reality TV fare such as Cops and America’s Most Wanted. Nevertheless, the bumpers were relatively expensive ($15,000 per clip).

Audience feedback: Packaged with the Ullman show, the individual clips did not rate well nationally. But there was some buzz among younger audiences, and producers noticed that highlight reels played to live audiences at Ullman Show tapings were greeted with hilarious laughter. This suggested that a full-length program could do well.

Iterative cycles: The initial idea of the cartoon family came from Groenig sketching stills on paper. Producers, animators, and actors took the idea further. The soft launch were the bumpers in the Ullman Show, while the hard launch took place in 1989. The format and primary characters were set in the first few seasons, but the show continued to innovate with animation technology and expand into other media, including a 1990 pop song, a 2007 movie, and international merchandise licensing.

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Image: The Simpsons stamps by Roy Patrick Tan/Flickr, used under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution/Sharealike 2.0 license.

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