You wouldn't know it from watching The Simpsons. But Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson — or rather, the writers and executives behind the sitcom — are about to face the most important challenge they've seen since the show premiered nearly 20 years ago.
They're in a race to turn one of entertainment's most powerful money machines, and 20th Century Fox's nws top revenue-generating property, into a timeless classic.
If they succeed, they could surpass pop icons including Mickey Mouse, Snoopy and Bugs Bunny in their ability to mine gold from global sales of T-shirts and licensed merchandise, as well as video games, DVDs, books, fast-food promotions and theme park rides.
But they have to move quickly. Like most programs on broadcast TV, ratings for the Sunday night show on Fox have been sliding. About 6.7 million people tuned in to The Simpsons each week this season, about half as many as the show drew a decade ago, according to Nielsen.
"If the ratings go down, then licensing will decline," says Michael Stone, CEO of The Beanstalk Group, a licensing consulting firm.
There's a lot at stake. Consumers worldwide spent more than $750 million on Simpsons-related licensed merchandise last year, about half of that coming from the U.S., Fox says.
In addition, advertisers spent $314.8 million last year on the prime-time show on Fox and reruns that local stations air, according to research firm TNS Media Intelligence. That's down 16.8% vs. 2007.
The creative forces behind the show feel the pressure.
"We had a great template in the beginning with really strong characters," says creator Matt Groening. "Now the struggle is to keep amusing and surprising the audience with stories and characters that they've seen for a couple of decades. It's hard."
They have to keep the laughs coming. Fox recently renewed The Simpsons for two years, ensuring that it will pass Gunsmoke as television's longest running prime-time series.
If the show can stay fresh, Fox executives say that their three-pronged strategy can keep the franchise growing. They're developing products that reflect the gimlet-eyed comic sensibilities of the show's writers. They're carefully targeting different merchandise to different kinds of fans. And they're looking for creative ways to keep The Simpsons in the public eye.
"The course we are on now ensures its future as an evergreen," says Elie Dekel, 20th Century Fox's executive vice president for licensing and merchandising. "It's what we call a living classic. We're still expanding."
To that end, the franchise is branching out to:
•Stamps. Last week The Simpsons became the first TV characters to be represented on U.S. postage stamps while the show's still in production. The U.S. Postal Service will print about 1 billion stamps at 44 cents apiece — the just-raised price for a first-class letter.
"It's the biggest deal ever," Groening says. "But it's a little odd. I feel like, wait a minute: I'm not Dr. Seuss. I'm still alive."
•Museums. In January, Fox will launch a museum tour featuring original art and other artifacts that illustrate how the show developed and its impact on pop culture.
"Instead of commercializing it, we're doing it from within the museum community," Dekel says. "It would start at a major museum and then potentially tour the world."
•Guitars. Fox also is working with an undisclosed partner to develop a limited-edition line of guitars inspired by musicians who have appeared on the show.