On May 13, 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 an impasse with Fox Television over the terms of his contract 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 a quote that he said came from the lawyer of coexecutive producer James L. Brooks: “[The] show will go on, Harry will not be part of it, wish him the best.” Shearer clarified, “This [is] because I wanted what we’ve always had: the freedom to do other work.”
As Simpsons fans weighed in on the news with dismayed tweets, Brooks and the show’s other executive producers, Matt Groening and Al Jean, 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.”
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Ultimately, the saga illustrates both the pros and cons of taking disputes public in negotiation, particularly in the heated forum of social media.
To be continued . . .
Responding to Shearer’s tweets in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, show producer Jean left the door open for the actor’s return, saying, “We’re still hoping he might come back.” Shearer, after all, had been the cast’s lone holdout during 2011 cast renegotiations, only to sign in the end.
Jean went on to characterize Shearer’s tweets as “very surprising” and inaccurate, given that the actor had an offer on the table to which he had not yet responded. “He said it wasn’t about the money, and I don’t think it is either,” Jean continued. Nor did the producer understand Shearer’s complaint about lacking freedom to do other work. Shearer, he said, had been given special permission in the past to do script readings and voice recordings for The Simpsons over the phone so that he could pursue his other interests. (Shearer has juggled his work on The Simpsons with a weekly radio show, sketch comedy, and BBC radio documentaries, among other projects.)
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. Reiterating that the show would go on without Shearer, if necessary, Jean discussed detailed plans to hire a roster of actors to fill his many roles. “We’ve had three really good [table] reads without Harry,” Jean said, speaking of the new season. “It’s not like we’re sitting there going, ‘Oh, this is a disaster.’”
For his part, producer Brooks sent an olive branch over Twitter: “Hey, we tried. We’re still trying. Harry, no kidding, let’s talk.”
An excellent ending
“Discussions are happening at a level where decisions can be made,” Shearer reassured a Simpsons fan somewhat cryptically on Twitter in late May. A month later, speaking on a panel with Brooks at a television festival, producer Jean revealed that talks with Shearer remained “in limbo.” “I think it will be tied in with the Iran deal that the U.S. is negotiating,” he quipped. “It’ll be one big package.”
On July 7, Entertainment Weekly broke the news that Shearer and The Simpsons’ producers had reached agreement on a new two-year contract. He reportedly was signing the same 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.” He later credited the support and encouragement he received from Simpsons fans for bringing him back to the negotiating table. Without them, he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “I don’t think this day would’ve turned out so happily. That’s the truth.”
Other details of the agreement remained under wraps, but a couple of revelations in the media hint at why Shearer held out for so long. First, Shearer had admitted in the past to having conflicting emotions about his earnings. “As an actor on an insanely successful TV series, I am by any standard of the human species obscenely overpaid,” Shearer said in February on comedian Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. “It is also true that as an actor on one of the most insanely successful TV series of all time, I am also getting royally [taken advantage of]. Both things are true!” During a September Bloomberg Masters in Business podcast, Shearer elaborated that “those who got in early” on The Simpsons’ success, other than the actors, “are getting the lion’s share. I have to be happy with what we [the actors] got.” 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.” Shearer’s initial tweet about not having the freedom to do other work may have reflected residual anger at being asked to do work for The Simpsons during a hiatus.
Toward more “okally-dokally” negotiations
The drawn-out, public nature of Shearer’s negotiation suggests the following advice to anyone who feels tempted to take their dispute to the court of public opinion:
1. Exhaust private negotiations first.
Shearer’s reluctance to sign may have been rooted in an unintentional violation of his creative freedom by Jean as well as long-standing resentment about what the actor perceived to be an unfair distribution of the show’s ample profits. Rather than trying to sort out these issues in private, Shearer appears to have taken his grievances directly to the public. His announcement that he was leaving put his counterparts on the defensive. The parties were able to reach an amicable agreement, but only after returning to private negotiations.
In negotiation, the larger our audience is, the more aggressively we are likely to behave. When we take our 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 on social media (or traditional media, for that matter), 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.
If you feel you have little choice but to air your grievances, be sure you can make a compelling case and run your plans (and posts) by trusted, unbiased advisers. Then try to get back to private negotiations as quickly as possible.
2. Be sure to address all their interests.
Jean’s confused response to Shearer’s initial tweets suggests he and the other producers lacked a clear sense of the actor’s interests in the renegotiation, beyond salary. Shearer let it be known that he had a strong interest in protecting his time away from The Simpsons to work on other projects, and he also appears to have believed that the producers had not respected this key interest in the past. In negotiation, ask probing questions aimed at uncovering all of your counterpart’s interests 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 can be an effective means of holding firm on price.
In business contracts, “most favored nation” (or “most favored customer”) clauses can serve a similar function. With such clauses, a seller promises to give a buyer the same best terms it gives its other buyers. A supplier, for example, might promise a retailer that its competitors will have to pay the very same price for the supplier’s products. Buyers appreciate the fairness of such clauses, which can also work to the advantage of sellers. If a buyer asks for a lower price, the seller can respond, “I could, but then I’d have to give the same lower price to everyone.” The buyer is likely to understand, see less advantage from a lower price, and back down.