The Simpsons Do America

Movie stars typically make the publicity rounds in advance of their film's release, but it's a bit different when that star is a bright yellow animated figure with a delightfully dysfunctional family and insuperable appetite for donuts.

Homer Simpson and his clan have been spied at various landmarks around the U.S., as stations attempt to boost ratings for the hit series, both on Fox's prime and on other affiliates in syndication, by tying into the July 27 release of The Simpsons Movie.

The most visible promotion is “The Simpsons Movie Experience,” which includes a 13-foot-long inflatable couch and larger-than-life likenesses of Homer, Marge, et al, on loan from 20th Century Fox, that has been touring the country. One seat is open for fans to have their photo taken, and they've been lining up in droves. Over a thousand people turned up at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Ore., when Meredith's MyNetworkTV affiliate KPDX held its Movie Experience event, complete with a street team reminding viewers to tune in at 6 and 7:30 p.m. to watch the show.

After that, the couch headed to PGE Park, home of the minor league Portland Beavers, for Homer Night July 21. Besides the couch (which is “kind of a pain to haul,” concedes KPDX Creative Services Director Matt Hyatt), Homer Night plans included Homer's throwing out the first pitch, Simpsons baseball-card giveaways, and numerous plugs for both the film and the show on KPDX.

“People are so attached to The Simpsons here,” says Hyatt, pointing out that creator Matt Groening is from Portland.

In Chicago, the turnout was even greater. Fox O&O WFLD set up a booth at the Taste of Chicago festival, and some 15,000 folks planted their rears alongside Homer. “A guy called me and said, 'The couch was so popular it wore out,'” says Leslie Lyndon, VP of advertising and promotions for the Fox TV stations. “A carpenter had to build a replacement.”

The couch is but one of several station tie-ins and promotions going on around the country before the film premieres. Sinclair Broadcasting offers the “Hooray for Hollywood” campaign, showing favorite Simpsons episodes with celebrity guests, the week before the debut, along with a still image of Homer and an animated Mel Gibson promoting the film.

The Fox-owned group, which runs the syndicated Simpsons in 13 markets, had the celeb-rich “Movie Star Week” in November and “Almost Famous Week” in February. KTBC Austin, Texas, featured an “InD'oh!pendance Day” celebration—starting July 4, two episodes from each season (voted by viewers) air daily.

Fox's stations also feature on-air back plates that plug the film (it shows a drooling Homer in a sleepy donut haze atop the logo), ticket giveaways, a “Garage Sale Sweepstakes” featuring film memorabilia in New York, and a Homer-inspired donut-eating contest. The last took place on the morning program on KTVI St. Louis.

“[The promotions] are an absolute no-brainer for us,” says Lyndon, citing the stations' corporate relationship with movie arm 20th Century Fox.

The promotions seem to help the stations as much as they do the film. Lyndon won't reveal numbers but says theme weeks consistently grow ratings. KPDX's “watch and win” contest for a trip to Hollywood for the premiere got about double the entries of a typical contest, says Hyatt, and bumped ratings 10%.

With 18 seasons, 400-plus episodes, 23 Emmys and induction into the 2003 Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame since debuting in 1989, The Simpsons remains a cash cow. According to Fox syndication arm Twentieth Television, the program has the biggest increase over its lead-in of any top-10 offnet sitcom and is No. 1 in the latest three sweeps in households, 18-34 and 18-49. At KPDX, says Hyatt, The Simpsons remains “one of the highest-rated shows on the station.”

Fox hopes The Simpsons Movie far surpasses the box-office takes of animated TV-to-theatrical releases South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. If the film can fill seats the way the inflatable couch did, it should be in good shape.

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.