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'Simpsons' Actors Voice New Contract Proposal

March 27, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY and GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Four actors who provide voices for the Fox network series "The Simpsons" are seeking to resolve contract negotiations with News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox Television, offering to sign for three more seasons in exchange for "further compensation at a later date."

The impasse has become the latest test as to whether the television industry can hold the line on escalating salaries, especially in a case where the stars in question are heard but not seen.

Banding together to negotiate a new contract, the actors initially asked for increases to $150,000 per episode, at least five times what most of them have been making.

The voice of Bart Simpson, Nancy Cartwright, came to terms separately for about a third of that--a deal still worth more than $1 million a year. Meanwhile, holdouts Dan Castellaneta (Homer), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Hank Azaria (Moe) and Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns, Smithers) have reportedly indicated they'd be willing to sign new contracts for next season with options for two additional years, provided they are assured payments--apparently in the form of bonuses--from the next cycle of selling "Simpsons" rerun rights to local TV stations.

Fox has taken steps toward finding replacements if a deal isn't reached soon--a hard-line stance, according to a memo detailing the actors' position, given that the series has grossed more than $500 million for the studio through syndication, merchandising and other ancillary areas.

Fox wouldn't comment regarding the negotiations, but sources attribute the studio's approach to a broader sense that television's cost structure is out of whack.

In the last six months, "Home Improvement" star Tim Allen and "Mad About You" stars Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt all agreed to deals that will reportedly pay them at least $1 million per episode next season. NBC will pay more than $260 million per year for "ER."

Costs have risen as network ratings continue to diminish, with no certainty as to how long the advertising market will remain robust if that decline continues.

Fox has another incentive in establishing ground rules for animated shows since the network currently airs a second prime-time animated hit, "King of the Hill," and has two more in the works for next season. Part of animation's allure for networks, officials have noted, is that the actors do not have the same leverage they enjoy on live-action shows.

Also at Fox, changes appear in the offing for another of its popular Sunday night series, "The X-Files," which sources say will move production from rainy Vancouver, British Columbia, where it has been filming since 1993, to Los Angeles.

Insiders said the move, which has been rumored for several months, is set, although specific details--including facilities, location and timetable--have yet to be determined.

Series star David Duchovny said last year that he wanted to move to Los Angeles to be closer to his wife, actress Tea Leoni. In addition, co-star Gillian Anderson has just purchased a home in Los Angeles.

The locale switch may dramatically change the look of "The X-Files," which is filmed mostly in dark, atmospheric settings. Series creator and executive producer Chris Carter has said Vancouver offered endless possibilities for establishing the right atmosphere, capable of standing in for any city in the world.

Twentieth Century Fox Television, which produces the series, declined to comment, and Carter could not be reached.

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