Two days after critics questioned the fledgling cable channel’s cancellation of Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, and what it meant for its future, FXX joined the long line of cable channels who have chosen to build their brand on the backs of syndication rights. And given that FXX is owned by NewsCorp, which also owns 20th Century Fox, that the channel would emerge victorious in the basic cable channel sweepstakes for The Simpsons is not a huge surprise. The decision allows Fox to keep the show within the corporate family, while simultaneously providing a cornerstone around which the FX brand and FXX specifically can differentiate within the competitive space of basic cable.
It’s not quite the “Simpsons Channel” that had been rumored in previous years, but it comes with what one could consider a comparable model: FXNow, the channels’ streaming service, will have exclusive rights to The Simpsons within a non-linear space, which could be the most lucrative part of the deal. As DVD sales plummet and streaming becomes the de facto model through which many young adults receive their content, The Simpsons represents a substantial piece of television history, and one that its fans are likely willing to revisit. When Marcia Wallace passed away last month, how many Simpsons fans rushed to revisit “Bart The Lover”? When you’re standing outside a restaurant talking about the quality of your meal and you give it your lowest rating ever, seven thumbs up—I actually did this last night—there’s a chance you’ll want to rush home to check out “Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner.” In a world where Simpsons references are a language for a certain generation, the ability to stream this content has tremendous value, and could push use of an app that otherwise would struggle to compete with services like Netflix.
There are obviously some complications. For instance, FXNow has commercial breaks within episodes, meaning there will be no space in which commercial-free episodes of The Simpsons will be available to stream. More importantly, I remain firm in my belief that the most valuable resource to Simpsons fans is not the ability to watch the show whenever they want, but rather the ability to reference the show at a moment’s notice. Within this deal,The Simpsons is being used as a leverage point to build a channel brand, generate revenue, and maximize potential revenue for a new channel; within popular culture, however, The Simpsons is used as a generator of meaning, a way to communicate that is best served with a different non-linear application that this deal would seem to render impossible (or at least highly unlikely).
The Simpsons Clip Database is an idea I’ve been tweeting about for a few years now. Every time I want to make a Simpsons joke on Twitter or Facebook, I search YouTube hoping that someone has managed to post the exact 10-second clip I’m looking for. For some people, this sounds crazy; for me, and others like me, this is common sense. The most common instance for me is any time I am attending or discussing a BBQ: When I wanted to make this joke earlier this year, I searched YouTube and was excited to find a copy of the exact clip that every Simpsons fan knows I’m talking about because that’s how this works. It was filmed off a television screen, and could be deleted at any moment. However, it allowed me to both contextualize the reference for those who weren’t familiar, while simultaneously inviting those who get the reference to revisit the joke within the context of the episode, but through the logic of viral video rather than taking thirty minutes to stream an episode.
We don’t think about The Simpsons in terms of episodes, not in our contemporary moment. While I will be happy to revisit various Simpsons episodes in their entirety on FXX or FXNow, and I will on occasion pull out my DVDs and watch a few episodes back-to-back, how we think of and use The Simpsons on a daily basis comes in the form of jokes, bits, and memorable sequences. The Simpsons travels in these bite-sized chunks, and the value of The Simpsons in the age of online streaming should ideally reflect this. What I’ve long proposed is an online app that allows you to create your own clips based on classic Simpsons episodes: Users can select a brief section of an episode to isolate, create metadata to make it searchable within a database, and then share that clip through social media.
Hypothetical: Should I eventually own my own home, I would instinctively want to make a “Homer Tax” joke. Currently, there is no clip of this joke from “Much Apu About Nothing” available online, but within The Simpsons Clip Database system you could isolate the scene in question, share it to social networks, and reinforce the almost terrifying degree to which The Simpsons is used to contextualize our daily lives. While there are some YouTube videos—like this one from the same episode, another oft-quoted line—that can serve this function, having the ability to find even more obscure references enables fans of the show to reinforce the degree to which their lives can be shaped by Simpsons references, the subject of a recent College Humor list.
Right now, the non-linear deal for The Simpsons remains tied to FXNow and video-on-demand content, but this is referring only to non-linear ways in which people would watch episodes of The Simpsons. However, The Simpsons is an inherently non-linear cultural text, experienced in fragments and memories more than through concentrated viewing patterns. Although the series being widely available on FXNow is obviously a boon for fans of the show, it doesn’t necessarily enable them to engage with the show in the way that feels most natural, and in the way that would maximize the series’ exposure within the space of social media.
So here’s my pitch to FX and FXX: Work with 20th Century Fox to create theSimpsons Clip Database. Launch it in Summer 2014. At the end of every clip created through the database, append a brief reminder that all episodes of The Simpsons will be available streaming on FXNow, and on the FXX linear channel starting in August. Rather than having to promote the launch yourself, let the show itself do the work for you, and weaponize the series’ cultural capital to let the show’s fans spread the word of the show’s new home. I have no idea how the technology would work, or how long or short the clips would need to be to make the legal logistics work, but I feel confident that online streaming and video-on-demand are not the non-linear platforms where The Simpsons will maximize its cultural impact in the contemporary moment.