Fans and The Simpsons: digital gold

Fans and The Simpsons: digital gold

The FanTrust blog goal is to unite entertainment fans and entertainment professionals and inspire new kinds of collaboration. Share your fandom and your fan strategies. Riff on the blur between user generated and professional content. Grapple out loud with your rights issues versus your open source ethic. Above all, please join us as the story unfolds.

To kick off the FanTrust blog, “where fans and entertainment meet”, it had to be The Simpsons. There is no better example of multiplatform success, gigantic demographic appeal and a Mobius strip of life-imitating-art-imitating-life in licensing deals.

The characters got their start as video shorts in the Tracy Ullman show (I breast-fed those little devils,” she once said), wound up as the longest-running American sitcom, sold record-breaking numbers of DVDs , spawned a billion dollar merchandising industry and will soon appear on the big screen with the launch of The Simpsons movie.

Bart, Lisa, Homer and Marge, and their mind-bogglingly big community, have inspired legions of fans the world over. Fansites such as Snpp generate 8.5 million monthly hits.

The relationship between the fans and Fox hasn’t always been any easy one – more mutually assured destruction than comfortable symbiosis. But in forcing Fox to test its limits for fan tolerance, The Simpson fan base is also partially responsible for the conglomerate’s other digital advances, including American Idol and 24.

From my vantage as a Monday morning quarterback (I have worked with FOX, but not on this series), The Simpsons is a case study in multimedia excellence: great writing and original animation led to a franchise way beyond TV, with games, comics, home entertainment, the movie and even an amusement park ride in the works.

The bar for creators is getting ever-higher, with everything from Web 2.0 to 360-degree content strategies influencing production orders. Today’s aspiring Matt Groening’s have the added challenge of interactive development and positioning from the get-go. But without story, everything else is a non-starter.

During this twenty year run, fortunes have been made by Rupert Murdoch, Matt Groening, writers, voice actors, merchandising artists, and eBay traders. Now 7-11 convenience stores are cashing in, with some outlets transforming to Kwik-E- Marts, Springfield’s fictitious corner store. This latest hall of mirrors for The Simpsons franchise is part of a campaign to hype the July 27 movie premiere. A dozen of the stores and most of the 6,000-plus others in North America will sell goodies, reports the LA Times, which until now existed only on TV: Buzz Cola, KrustyO’s cereal and the Squishee, itself a knock-off of the 7-11 mainstay Slurpee.

The Simpsons Movie will premiere in a real Springfield, picked from among 30 eponymous American towns. Fox has challenged Springfields across the country to prove how they typify the cartoon landscape and culture. The LA Times reports that various Springfields are weighing in with bona fides that include doughnut factories, proximity to Matt Groening’s birthplace and even a home-grown bald-headed, beaked-nosed power plant executive.

Everyone who has seen The Simpsons has a favorite character. The inconvenient truth is that mine oversees Springfield’s nuclear power plant and is the leader from hell. I live for his keyword “eeeeexcellllent” and the mesmeric tenting of his fingertips. Charles Montgomery Burns represents everything reprehensible about corporate management. And I love him BECAUSE I KNOW I CAN FIX HIM. (It’s a consultant thing.)

What does all of this success have to do with fandom and digital fans in particular? For that we turn to Chris Turner, author of Planet Simpson, who said on a panel that I moderated at VIDFEST that the interplay between TV, the VCR and the Internet allowed for a new kind of storytelling, and a new level of fan engagement. From the beginning Matt Groening built layers of pop culture, politics and in-jokes into every episode, making them rich viewing for video playback. Eventually, at the end of one episode, a fictitious news program broadcasts a list of dozens of corrections that scroll by in a couple of seconds. In no time, loyal fans trolled through the show in slow motion, transcribed all 34 jokes and posted them online.

The current Springfield contest takes fan community to new heights and may not have even been conceived, let alone possible, before the web. The series recently celebrated its 400th episode. In an era where no one can seem to feed the hungry maw of broadband, this, my friend, is a lot of valuable digital content.

Twenty years ago, when The Simpsons first went from their couch into our zeitgeist, there weren’t enough friends with modems to propel them along. Today, a quick Google search reveals 31.8 million results for the show name alone. If your idea promises to be the next Simpsons, you now have the hat-trick: connectivity, culture and fan community.

The movie, which will probably be bootlegged in real time, may unleash more digital firsts and fuel the next generation of digital fans. We do know it includes cartoon nudity (full frontal Bart), and claims a PG-13 rating for “irreverent humor”. Would that we were all known so well.