The Simpsons in Australia: A Fan Remembers (And Rambles)

Bart vs Australia14

By D.N.

The Simpsons has been such a massive part of my life – probably more of an influence on my sense of humour and my pop-culture savvy than anything else I can think of – that it almost feels strange to recall a time before I became aware of the show’s existence. My very first Simpsons-related memory hails from before the series made it to Australian television – during a front-yard cricket game in 1990 (I was about 8 or 9 years old). One of my next-door neighbours, who had recently visited America, talked about something he had seen over there. My mind was more focused on the cricket, but I did overhear some vague details about a TV show involving something called “Do the Bartman.” This was confusing to me at the time, but it made a lot more sense in 1991, when The Simpsons began its run in Australia. In proportion (i.e. taking into account the difference in population), The Simpsons might be as popular in Australia as it is in America. Certainly, we latched onto the show years before the UK did. (The Simpsons didn’t really take off in Britain until the mid-1990s.)

Some background: Prior to the arrival of cable (and later, digital) television, Australian TV in general consisted of five channels: the three commercial networks (Channels 7, 9, and 10), and the two public broadcasting networks (ABC and SBS). All five “free-to-air” channels, still in operation today, have a prerequisite amount of (mostly lousy) local content, but 7, 9, and 10 screen a lot of American stuff, the ABC screens a lot of British stuff, and SBS screens a lot of non-English-language stuff. At the dawn of the 1990s, The Simpsons was poised to be scooped up by one of the commercial networks. That Channel 10 acquired the show is, in hindsight, not surprising – in the 1990s, 10 had a reputation for screening the “edgier” American shows, including Roseanne, Seinfeld, The Ren & Stimpy Show, and The X-Files, although Seinfeld started out late-nights, and largely unwatched, on Channel 9, before becoming a hit on 10. (Channel 9 kept hold of Married…with Children, though.)

So Australia got The Simpsons, albeit a full year after the series began its run in America. Why the wait? These days, to compete with the internet and DVDs, Australian networks tend to “fast-track” episodes of US shows and screen them fairly close to the US air dates (“Express from the US!”, as the promos go). This is a relatively recent innovation. Australian television’s big ratings period excludes summer (December-February), and before the advent of fast-tracking, imported US material was made to abide by the traditional structure.

This meant we’d get first-run episodes quite a while after they screened in the US. Since we couldn’t get The Simpsons at the same time America did, and we couldn’t have a new series premiere mid-year, we had to wait until the beginning of 1991. (And I suspect the powers-that-be wanted to wait and see how the show played out in America – had The Simpsons been cancelled after its first season, I doubt this country would have seen it at all.) So, by the time we got season 1, America was halfway through season 2. (I don’t know if The Tracey Ullman Show aired in Australia prior to 1991. It definitely aired years after that, in a late-night timeslot.)

In those barbaric, pre-internet days, it would’ve been difficult for folks here to know much about The Simpsons until it got close to the show’s premiere. Amid a blaze of publicity (commercials, magazine and TV Guide front-covers), The Simpsons premiered in Australia on Sunday, 10 February 1991, at 7:30pm with a double-screening of “Bart the Genius” and “Homer’s Odyssey.” Subsequently, Channel 10 screened the season 1 episodes in a unique order (it wasn’t the US broadcast or production order). I missed the opening double-header, and I didn’t tune in for the next two weeks’ episodes, “Bart the General” and “Call of the Simpsons.”

(I don’t know why I missed them. I can’t imagine that I had anything better to do. I was 9 years old. What the hell was I doing on Sunday evenings? Doing my homework? Pretending to do my homework? Playing with my Ninja Turtles action figures?)

My first, real experience of The Simpsons was watching the premiere of “Moaning Lisa” on Sunday, 1 March 1991. What an amazing introduction it was. The Simpsons was funny and smart, it looked and sounded weird, and it was totally unlike anything I’d ever seen before. For an animated show, it was funny in a way I was not familiar with. (I grew up on 1980s animated fare, but of the non-comedic kind – Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, Dungeons & Dragons, Thundercats, etc. I wasn’t really a fan of Hanna-Barbera – I liked Scooby Doo, but I didn’t find it especially funny. The only “funny” cartoons I liked were the old Warner Brothers shorts.) The fact that The Simpsons was a cartoon that screened in the evening made an impression on me; I was also impressed by the fact that the characters blinked. (This might seem like a weird thing to latch onto, but was little touches like that helped to rapidly endear the show to me – I don’t think I’d ever seen animated characters blink like real people before.) I also loved how the show referenced stuff like religion and movies, and how it had a massive supporting cast of characters that expanded with every episode. (The number of locales in Springfield – the Simpsons’ house, Springfield Elementary, the nuclear plant, Moe’s Tavern, the Kwik-E-Mart, Burns Manor – also gave the show an added dimension.)

So, I was a Simpsons convert (even if it took me four weeks to tune in). I fell for Bat-Mania in 1989, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fad in 1990; The Simpsons was my next craze. “Moaning Lisa” hooked me, and the following week’s episode, “Some Enchanted Evening,” reeled me in even further. (Seeing kids being terrorised and tied up by a larcenous babysitter, and it being funny, blew my 9-year-old mind.) Over the next three weeks, I caught “Krusty Gets Busted,” a re-run of “Homer’s Odyssey,” and “The Telltale Head.” (The mixed-up episode order made the opening of “The Telltale Head” even more disturbing. At the end of “Krusty Gets Busted,” I saw Bart receive heartfelt thanks from Krusty for trusting him. Two weeks later, I saw an enraged Krusty baying for Bart’s blood.)

I dug The Simpsons. But how popular was The Simpsons in Australia at the time? Looking back now, I’m not really sure. It seemed to me that the show was incredibly popular, because I watched it, as did my family and my friends, and we all talked about it. But beyond my limited sphere of perception, it took a while for The Simpsons to become a ratings hit in Australia. Maybe the show was too damn unusual to become an instant success, but it eventually did catch on, thanks to the power of re-runs and word of mouth (not to mention the fact that with only five channels, television viewing options were relatively limited). In Australia, The Simpsons, as it had done in America, dealt with negative publicity on its way to becoming a mainstream hit. There was a fair bit of tut-tutting in the media over the show’s, and more specifically, Bart’s, supposed bad influence (There were kids at my school whose overprotective parents banned them from watching the show, and teachers who would sneer contemptuously at ‘The Bart Simpson Show’ [sic]).

It was easy for non-fans to be cynical about the show, what with the rampant merchandising: this county got hit with all, or most of, the predominantly Bart-centric Simpsons merchandise, repeating the Ninja Turtles onslaught of the previous year. There was even an Australian edition of Simpsons Illustrated. (I don’t know how many issues it lasted for, though – I got the first three, and I don’t believe there were many, if any, after that. Man, that that magazine was a godsend while it lasted – in those pre-internet days, it was my only source of info about the show and intriguing upcoming episode plots. Lisa goes bad! Mr Burns sells the nuclear plant to foreign businessmen! This was manna from heaven.)

The first four seasons of The Simpsons aired on Channel 10 between February 1991 and August 1993 (bouncing between Sunday and Tuesday evenings), but season 5 didn’t premiere until February 1995. For a year and a half, Australia didn’t get any new episodes of The Simpsons! Instead, 10 screened re-runs of seasons one to four, 6:00pm Monday to Friday (replacing re-runs of M*A*S*H). This had the effect of fans of the show becoming really, really, really familiar with those episodes. (Having seen those episodes so many times in that period, combined with my pre-pubescent age at that time, means it’s difficult for me now to remember the first time I saw them, although I definitely remember the very first time I saw Homer plummeting down Springfield Gorge, and thinking it was the single funniest thing I had ever seen in my entire life. I also remember the first time I saw “I Love Lisa” – well, not the episode itself, but I recall laughing the next day with my fellow seventh-graders over Skinner’s tragic ’Nam flashback, which we agreed was one of the most hilarious things the show ever did.) There weren’t many official Simpsons VHS releases at the time – only a smattering of season one episodes – but of course, there was the magic of the VCR. That said, it almost felt like there was no point in recording any episodes, because it wouldn’t be too long before they aired again.

The lack of new Simpsons episodes in 1994 meant that it was a massive deal when season 5 finally premiered the following year. And boy, did Channel 10 hype the advent of new episodes. The long wait was over! (And that long wait delineated the show for me: I tended to look upon seasons one to four as “old Simpsons,” and seasons five onwards as “new Simpsons.” Of course, these days, I regard about the first ten seasons as The Simpsons and everything after that as “Zombie Simpsons.” Thanks, DHS.  [Ed note: We do what we can.]) In 1995, season 5 was screened every Wednesday evening. This was followed by season 6 (which – oddly – continued through the 1995/1996 non-ratings period). Channel 10 still kept the weekday seasons one-four re-runs going, this time at 7:00pm (the 6:00pm slot went to old episodes of The Brady Bunch. The Brady Bunch?! This seems weird now, but at the time, Ten tried to capitalise on the release of The Brady Bunch Movie). Also, “Treehouse of Horror IV” and “Treehouse of Horror V” premiered together on one night, on 1 November 1995. I remember that, after “Bart Simpson’s Dracula,” there was a commercial break, followed by “The Shinning.” We were deprived of the opening credits of “Treehouse of Horror V” for some years. Other noteworthy occurrences included the screening of “Bart vs. Australia” (it didn’t go down well, but that’s a whole other story), and the revelation of who shot Mr. Burns getting leaked here a while before “Who Shot Mr. Burns? Part 2” actually aired. (I remember lots of people at school mentioning that Maggie did it. Turns out that radios DJs were spilling the beans, although I imagine the nascent World Wide Web played its part.)

For most of the 1990s, Channel 10 was the sole dominion of The Simpsons in Australia, with a combination of weekly first-runs and weekday re-runs. The arrival of the cable channel Fox 8 in the late-1990s meant there was another outlet for Simpsons episodes. (For the most part, Fox 8 only showed episodes that 10 had already screened, although there were several season 6 episodes that received their first run on Fox 8.) The Simpsons content on both channels was considerable – around the turn of the millennium, the combination of 10 and Fox 8 meant that viewers got somewhere in between 40-50 different Simpsons episodes a week!

Another massive Simpsons event was Fox 8’s alternative programming to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. For the duration of the games, Fox 8 screened a Simpsons marathon consisting of all the episodes that had been shown here before – roughly, the show’s first ten years – an almost total non-Zombie Simpsons run. (Fox 8 has continued its tradition of animation marathons during the Olympics, although said marathons have expanded to include not only The Simpsons, but also Futurama and the shows of Seth MacFarlane.)

Today, The Simpsons is probably about as well-regarded (or disregarded) in Australia as it is in America. I remember reading an article in 1999 that claimed that The Simpsons would end in 2001. That sounded about right to me – some lame episodes had already creeped in, and I thought it would be good for the show to bow out before the overall quality declined. Of course, the show didn’t end then, and, technically, it hasn’t ended since. For the last dozen years, Zombie Simpsons has lumbered around with a counterfeit claim to be The Simpsons…but I’m sure that there are plenty of people in this big sunbaked country who appreciate The Simpsons enough to recognise Zombie Simpsons when they see it.

11 Responses to “The Simpsons in Australia: A Fan Remembers (And Rambles)”

  1. 25 July 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Alright, Company Eating Rules time is here again! It’s like the Christmas in summer. Or Australia.

  2. 25 July 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Wait, so who wrote this?

  3. 25 July 2013 at 9:40 pm

    Also, when FTA TV buys a show, they’re also obliged to buy a pack of shows. These packs of shows included one big show (say, The Big Bang Theory) and maybe two or three crappy shows. These crappy shows were shown over summer in the non-ratings period until the Big Wigs discovered that shows could gather quite a following during those months and become a smash hit in the ratings period.

    I was about the same age as you when Simpsons premiered on Aussie TV. My sister was hooked immediately but I only got hooked after watching episodes with her. And now I blog about it, just for something to do!

    • 7 D.N.
      27 July 2013 at 2:08 am

      I used it find it hilarious when the TV stations down here would hype the hell out of the “new” shows premiering in the summertime, when the only reason we were getting those shows in summer was because they’d already crashed and burned in the States. Stuff like “Roar,” the TV spin-off of the Sandra Bullock movie “The Net,” etc.

  4. 8 RaikoLives
    25 July 2013 at 11:46 pm

    The biggest revelation in this article for me (being an Australian too) is that M*A*S*H used to be on Channel 10! It’s been on Seven for as long as I could remember (played every afternoon, at 5, over and over, round and round, forever and ever… it’s lucky I love that show). I was one of those who was FORBIDDEN to watch The Simpsons! So I overdosed when I became old enough.

    • 9 D.N.
      27 July 2013 at 2:03 am

      I got hooked on “M*A*S*H” during its Channel 10 run (which started in 1992, in commemoration of the show’s 20th anniversary). Never repeated the final episode, though – I guess it was out of syndication because of its movie-length. I have no idea which channel had the show for its original run, though. I think it was 10, but I’m not sure.

  5. 10 Al Gore Doll
    26 July 2013 at 12:35 am

    1. When are you going to post a story about when Bart vs. Australia aired?
    2. What direction does your toilet water flush?

    • 11 D.N.
      27 July 2013 at 1:55 am

      1. The Bart vs. Australia piece is on the way.
      2. Bart vs. Australia lied about the toilet situation in Australia. We don’t actually have toilets – we just dig holes in the ground as use those, as God intended. Also, we don’t have any fancy-ass toilet paper. We all use the communal husk.

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