By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The future of animated TV comedy "The Simpsons" was up in the air on Tuesday after 20th Century Fox Television said it could no longer afford to produce the show without a huge pay cut for its cast.
Fox Television, a unit of News Corp, issued a tough statement after a report that it had threatened to end the subversive series unless the voice actors take a 45 percent pay cut.
"We believe this brilliant series can and should continue, but we cannot produce future seasons under its current financial model," Fox said.
"We are hopeful that we can reach an agreement with the voice cast that allows 'The Simpsons' to go on entertaining audiences with original episodes for many years to come," the statement added.
"The Simpsons" is the longest-running comedy series on U.S. television and is currently in its 23rd season on Fox. The show also generates billions of dollars through global syndication, as well as DVD and merchandise sales.
The Fox statement followed a report on news website The Daily Beast that the principal voice cast members -- including the voices for Homer (Dan Castellaneta), Marge (Julie Kavner), Bart (Nancy Cartwright) and Lisa (Yeardley Smith) -- were having difficulty renegotiating contracts that currently see them earning around $8 million each per season.
The Daily Beast, quoting an unnamed insider, said the cast had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a 30 percent pay cut in return for a portion of the show's profits.
Fox did not dispute the Daily Beast report.
STAPLE OF U.S. CULTURE
"The Simpsons" is broadcast in more than 100 countries and 50 languages and has become a staple of American culture, with the family earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
TV industry sources said producers have enough episodes to keep the comedy on the air until the end of the 2011-12 TV season in May.
But the sources said the dispute would need to be settled by December 2011, so that writers would be able to work on either the season finale, or the series finale, depending on the outcome of contract talks.
Other members of the cast and crew are also being asked to take pay cuts, according to the sources.
News Corp executives have said in recent weeks they are looking at ways to make more money from the show in the future, both in syndication rights and other areas.
News Corp COO Case Carey told an investors conference on September 14 that executives had had a number of meetings in the past six months "to look at opportunities from A to Z."
"But I think you can imagine, whether it's channel, digital, ourselves, third parties, it's a series unique in television, with a volume to it that is unprecedented," Carey said, declining to give details.
Carey later jokingly brushed off a suggestion that a Simpson TV Channel might be underway.
" (It) is a franchise that you can do a lot of things with. And I think we'll continue to evaluate what those are. But -- and I wouldn't say we have in the drawing plans a Simpson Channel, although there's a lot of Simpson fans out there," Carey told financial analysts on September 21.
(Additional reporting by Yinka Adegoke; Editing by Jill Serjeant)