“That is so 1991!”

Steve Williams and Ian Jones on the BBC’s scheduling of The Simpsons

First published March 2005

One of the oddest things about The Simpsons is that its biggest spell of media ubiquity and fame in Britain came at a time when very few people were watching it. When Do The Bartman went to number one in January 1991, its video was the first real sighting of the show on terrestrial television, as for some six years the only chance you had of seeing The Simpsons was on Sky. Unlike other series, such as South Park (debuting on Sky in March 1998, on Channel 4 four months later), for some reason it managed to be “the best reason to get a satellite dish” for absolutely ages.

“You really want to impress her? Show her the big empty space where our TV used to be.”

There were some ways to see the programme. Videos were released in 1991, though they featured just two episodes on each tape; Simpsons T-shirts took over from James on the racks in HMV; and the show’s spin-off album spun-off into a couple of hit singles. As early as 1991 the press speculated that both the BBC and ITV were battling it out to buy up the series. But it wasn’t until Saturday 23 November 1996 that the vast majority of the British population actually got to see an episode for the very first time.

Despite the Bart T-shirts long since having been used for decorating wear, the BBC’s purchase of the series was still a big deal. It got the cover of Radio Times and an enormous feature inside. It was also subject to weeks of trailers, yet some people may have been surprised at its scheduling: Saturdays at 5.30pm on BBC1. Yes, it was the Saturday family teatime spot remembered by a generation as the home of timeless stuff like Doctor Who, but surely this was a bit too early? Muppets Tonight had just finished its run on BBC1 on Fridays at 7pm, a slot that could well have been a better time to show The Simpsons. Seemingly, though, as an animated programme, it had to be on when the very young could watch it. There was also a repeat the following lunchtime on BBC2.

The BBC run began with “There’s No Disgrace Like Home” – a fairly standard, if underwhelming, opener. The original deal was for the first 61 episodes (up to the start of the fourth season), though they weren’t to be shown in the right order. In fact, at one point the earliest story of them all (“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”) was followed a week later by the 61st episode (“A Streetcar Named Marge”). This led to a certain lack of consistency, although it also meant the weaker early episodes could be slightly “buried”. Indeed, series one editions would still be appearing six months later.

“CBS’s Saturday night crap-o-rama!”

The first episode screened by the BBC got about five million viewers. This was a decent start, but unfortunately a slighter lower rating than the programme which had previously occupied its place in the schedule: Dad’s Army. The show also faced competition from ITV, who had decided to air the debut of the import Sabrina the Teenage Witch right up against it. William Phillips noted in Broadcast that this was the first time for decades, if ever, that two American series had premiered opposite each other.

Curiously perhaps, within a few weeks Sabrina was outperforming The Simpsons. ITV crowed that this was “a major embarrassment for the BBC”, and sure enough in February the run abruptly ended. Nonetheless Radio Times promised the series would return “soon, on BBC2″, and so it did, on Monday 8 March 1997 in a new slot at 6pm on Monday and Friday evenings, plus an omnibus on Sunday lunchtimes.

This turned out to be a good idea. The show’s popularity blossomed, and within a few weeks it was topping the BBC2 ratings chart. For a while new editions of The Simpsons continued twice a week, but were soon being replaced by repeats, seemingly when there wasn’t enough room for a two-episode omnibus on Sunday lunchtime. The number of new editions continued to dry up and by Friday 13 June The Simpsons disappeared from the BBC completely until 13 October. Such a break would be unheard of today, but the fact was there were no new episode to screen and bundling out endless repeats was, at the time, a practice deemed unsuitable.

When the show did return, it was billed as just for five weeks. In reality the series continued without a break for nine months, albeit with new episodes transmitted on Mondays and old ones on Fridays: a pattern that continued for many years. The BBC signed a new deal giving it access to episodes beyond number 61, and when in June 1998, Wimbledon took over BBC2′s schedules, this time The Simpsons was unaffected, simply switching from 6pm to 9pm for two weeks. This was also the slot utilised for new episodes when the series resumed another long run in July 1998. With repeats continuing on Mondays and Fridays (often two at a time), there was now more of The Simpsons on terrestrial TV than ever before.

“Cartoons are very rarely broadcast live – it’s a tremendous strain on the animators’ wrists.”

However 9pm was soon judged to be too late a time for the show. After just five episodes at that hour (interrupted by sport and the Proms) new episodes were moved back to 6pm. September 1998 saw the programme broadcast daily for the first time during the Commonwealth Games, and at Christmas 1998, new episodes were shown every day, with one edition on Christmas Day even placed opposite the Queen’s Speech. The end of the year coincided with the end of season five, and then – despite the unexpected screening of a ninth season episode, “The Trouble With Trillions” as part of Cuba Night in January 1999, which at least proved there were plenty more in the vaults – The Simpsons continued only as repeats for nine months.

This felt a somewhat bizarre and unnecessary decision. In August Radio Times printed a letter asking if the BBC “were going to show season four and five on a loop forever”. It wasn’t until September that season six finally appeared, and in the usual Mondays-at-6pm slot. As before the show continued over Christmas – with the usual splurge of episodes over the festive season – before wrapping up in February with the first part of “Who Shot Mr Burns?”

The second part was due to be shown, er … well, the BBC weren’t that sure. Various critics suggested this was symptomatic of the Corporation’s ineptitude, rather forgetting that in America “Who Shot …” was a season-closing cliff-hanger which didn’t get a conclusion for several months. In the meantime the first series got another rerun in an attempt to pump up the viewing figures for a stuttering Live & Kicking, in the process giving The Simpsons its first appearance on BBC1 for three years.

The identity of Burns’ assassin was eventually disclosed with the arrival of season seven in July 2000. This time there was a change in traditional scheduling: new episodes were now aired as part of a double bill on Fridays, and ran uninterrupted straight on into season eight. It meant brand new editions of The Simpsons were shown continually on the BBC until April 2001: a rare treat. The ninth season followed in October 2001, still on Fridays, but minus its original American opener. As observed elsewhere, “The City of New York vs Homer Simpson” wasn’t shown for reasons of taste and has never appeared on terrestrial television in Britain. Compare this to the anti-gun episode, “The Cartridge Family”, which Sky One has continually refused to screen but which BBC2 simply showed at 6pm without any fanfare whatsoever. Season nine continued from November with one episode on Monday and two on Fridays until January 2002, when repeats began once more.

The Simpsons‘ berth on early evening BBC2 continually provided the channel with regular audiences, schedule consistency and an obvious profile. Indeed, as the channel underwent a conscious re-orientation towards the over-30s at the start of the new decade, the show remained one of its few genuine “youth” propositions. It was somewhat ironic then, and some might say typical, that more or less at exactly the same moment BBC2 began showing The Simpsons every day at 6pm, Channel 4 announced they’d bought the rights to the series. It seemed the BBC were suddenly disinclined to pay, in their own words, “football match cash” for a show that regularly delivered them an average of 3.4m viewers.

“It may be a lousy channel, but the Simpsons are on TV!”

A run of Simpsons episodes continued on BBC2 every weekday evening for most of 2002. Of course most of these were repeats, but even when season 10 arrived in October the new episodes weren’t publicised, so it’s not hard to imagine many viewers were unaware they were actually being screened. Despite the number of seasons at their disposal, BBC2 now seemed disinclined to premiere more than one unseen series of The Simpsons a year. This was probably wise, given that it rationed the Corporation’s now finite tally of brand new episodes, and besides, the repeats always performed just as well in the ratings.

However with the end of this bankable audience winner looming, thought needed to be given to what would replace it. As such, December 2002 saw the first interruption to the daily transmission of Simpsons episodes in order to broadcast something new: the unexpected return of Treasure Hunt, which was stripped every evening at 6pm. The same happened again in April 2003, though not before the programme’s performance had been deemed unsatisfactory and it was shunted to a weekly slot before being axed.

The search resumed for a replacement. BBC2 Controller Jane Root claimed not to be downhearted about such a challenge, stating it was the ideal opportunity to launch new and innovative series in a much sought-after slot. Throughout the latter part of 2003 The Simpsons regularly made way for pretenders to its throne, with quiz show Nobody Likes a Smartass, lifestyle series Get a New Life and dating effort Would Like to Meet being aired nightly for one or two weeks at a time. Yet whenever The Simpsons resumed its run, it comfortably attained around twice as many viewers as all these new homegrown affairs.

The last ever all-new Simpsons series to be screened by BBC2, season eleven, began in December 2003. It ran either side of Christmas, still daily, and sometimes on Friday evenings three at a time, creating an hour’s worth of viewing. The final episode, the “Behind the Laughter” clip show, went out on Tuesday 20 January 2004. Repeats followed on almost immediately, albeit in small batches in-between other short-run entertainment shows such as the quiz Traitor. Transmission had dried up completely by April. Finally, “Behind the Laughter” was shown again, cast adrift from the rest of the run, on Friday 7 May. On its conclusions at 6.20pm, The Simpsons took their leave of the BBC after nearly eight years.

“And that’s the tooth!”

After haggling over The Simpsons for ages, then spending still more time fussing over where to schedule it, the BBC had, over the last few years, treated the show pretty well and accorded it the respect it deserves. Yet to date none of the programmes put in its place, whether live action US sitcom My Wife and Kids or quiz show Beg, Borrow or Steal, have made anywhere near as much an impact. In February 2005 the 6pm position was even given over to repeats of Animal Hospital.

Now that slot resembles BBC1′s old 5.35pm enclave in the days before regular helpings of Neighbours: in other words, a mish-mash of family-orientated formats hailing from both sides of the Atlantic, bundled out in the hope at least one might catch on. We’re still waiting.

But what of Channel 4? In light of the channel’s hapless scheduling of Matt Groening’s other series, Futurama (the third season of which was screened around 1am on Friday nights, the fourth at 9am on Saturday mornings) it was tempting to conclude that The Simpsons would no longer be blessed with the kind of regular and reliable exposure it had once enjoyed on BBC2. Yet the amount of money spent on the show virtually committed Channel 4 to lengthy and well-publicised runs.

So The Simpsons arrived on C4 on Friday 5 November 2004 as part of a themed evening comprising the first two episodes of season 12, a documentary and a quiz. From the following Monday, however, the channel adopted the identical practice of BBC2: old episodes (from the second season, a slightly surprising place to start) every night at 6pm, replacing the equally regularly unspooled Friends.

New editions were kept for Friday evenings at 9pm, a spot BBC2 had experimented with, and rejected, way back in 1998. This certainly took The Simpsons away from its regular audience of families with children, especially when episodes began to be screened in double bills from January 2005 – the 10pm finish being the latest it had ever run to on terrestrial screens. C4 did, wisely, start repeating these new episodes on Sunday evenings at 6pm (conveniently just ahead of even newer episodes on Sky One). Yet viewing figures soon suggested the weeknight repeats were performing better than their 9pm cousins.

When season 12 in February, the 9pm slot was instantly given over to season 11 repeats, their third outing in 18 months. It was testament, perhaps, to the fact that British viewers seem to appreciate The Simpsons just as much for its reliability and permanence as they do its continued innovation. But it was also somewhat unfortunate that C4′s haul of “new” episodes, about which they continue to make such a song and dance, all date from the show’s all-time nadir of 2001/02. To find out why The Simpsons still justifies being called one of the greatest programmes of all time, it remains the case, as it was almost two decades ago, that you’re best tuning in to satellite television.