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, who 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 some would consider to be a comparable model: FXNow, the channels’ streaming service, will have exclusive rights to The Simpsons within a non-linear space, which some could argue is 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 would push use of an app that otherwise would struggle to compete with services like Netflix.
There are obviously some complications: for example, 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. However, 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).