In The Simpsons Dealmaking, Harry Shearer Goes Public

Actor Harry Shearer used Twitter to gain leverage in his contract renegotiation for The Simpsons.

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On May 13, 2015, actor Harry Shearer, the voice of iconic characters on the hit animated TV series The Simpsons since its inception in 1989, announced via Twitter that he was leaving the show because of a dealmaking impasse with Fox Television over his contract terms for the show’s 27th and 28th seasons. Shearer, the voice of Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and dozens of other Simpsons characters, tweeted, “This [is] because I wanted what we’ve always had: the freedom to do other work.”

As Simpsons fans responded with dismayed tweets, the show’s executive producers released a statement saying that Fox had offered Shearer “the same deal” as the show’s other main cast members, all five of whom had accepted. That deal was reportedly $300,000 each per episode, or about $13.2 million for the two seasons, plus an option for two more seasons. “The show will go on, and we wish him well,” the producers said about Shearer. “Maggie [the fictional Simpsons’ baby] took it hard.” The dealmaking impasse leads to interesting employment contract negotiation strategies for those who are working on closing the deal in negotiations.

To be continued . . .

Responding to Shearer’s tweets in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, show producer Al Jean said, “We’re still hoping he might come back.” He characterized Shearer’s tweets as “very surprising” and inaccurate, given that the actor had an offer on the table. “He said it wasn’t about the money, and I don’t think it is either,” Jean continued. In addition, he said that Shearer had in fact been given special permission in the past to do Simpsons work over the phone so that he could pursue his other interests.

For fairness reasons, Jean said, the producers would not bump up Shearer’s offer above what the show’s five other main stars had already accepted. And he discussed detailed plans to hire a roster of actors to fill his many roles. For his part, producer James L. Brooks sent an olive branch over Twitter: “Hey, we tried. We’re still trying. Harry, no kidding, let’s talk.”

An excellent ending

On July 7, 2015, Entertainment Weekly broke the news that Shearer had agreed to sign the same two-year contract as the show’s other five primary voice actors. “All I can say is, it wasn’t a stunt,” Shearer told the Guardian. “There were real issues that had to be resolved, and they were.”

A couple of revelations in the media hint at why Shearer held out for so long. During a September 2015 Bloomberg “Masters in Business” podcast, Shearer said that “those who got in early” on The Simpsons’ success, other than the actors, “are getting the lion’s share.” Negotiators often care just as much about getting a fair deal as they do about their objective outcomes, research has found.

That may have been the case for Shearer.

Second, a series of tweets from Jean on the day Shearer’s new contract was announced suggest the recent standoff was precipitated by a perceived slight. “I have recently been told that during a period when Harry Shearer believed he had a five-week free period from The Simpsons, I was unaware of this fact, and did in fact request material from him,” Jean wrote. “I am truly glad he is returning to the show.”

Toward more “okally-dokally” negotiations

The drawn-out, public nature of Shearer’s dealmaking suggests the following advice to anyone who is working on closing the deal in negotiations:

1. Exhaust private negotiations first.

In negotiation, the larger our audience, the more aggressively we are likely to behave. When we take our dealmaking and disputes public, we feel compelled to “save face” by maintaining our tough stance. In the process, we squander our ability to brainstorm creative concessions and proposals. The next time you feel like venting your frustrations with a counterpart publicly, air them privately instead. Even if you feel ready to walk away, at least give the other side the opportunity to listen to and try to address your concerns.

2. Be sure to address all their interests.

In dealmaking, ask probing questions aimed at uncovering all of your counterpart’s interests, other than merely claiming value, before making an initial offer—and then ensure your first offer meets as many of those interests as possible.

3. Use benchmarks to set an anchor for what’s fair.

The Simpsons producers’ decision to offer the same compensation to all six of the show’s lead actors paid off in their negotiation with Shearer. The salary benchmark of $300,000 per episode became a credible anchor on which they could base their refusal to offer him more money. Because most negotiators understand such appeals to fairness, monetary benchmarks, such as “most favored nation” or “most favored customer” clauses in business contracts, can be an effective means of holding firm on price—and closing a negotiation.

Related Dealmaking Article: MESO Negotiation – The Benefits of Making Multiple Equivalent Simultaneous Offers in Business Negotiations

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Adapted from the article “On Social Media, Business Negotiators Should Post with Caution,” published in the December 2015 issue of the Negotiation Briefings newsletter.

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