Pressure is on 'The Simpsons' to capitalize on merchandise

These initiatives follow a deal last year with Appleaapl to offer digital downloads of recent episodes of the show on iTunes and with Hallmark to create a line of Simpsons greeting cards.

And in May last year Universal Studios introduced The Simpsons Ride at its theme parks in Los Angeles and Orlando. Since then, they've sold more than 5 million tickets to the motion simulator that, with the help of 3D video, takes visitors on a six-minute ride where they try to avoid Sideshow Bob's efforts to sabotage their trip through Krusty the Clown's dilapidated Krustyland park.

Early marketing stumbles

After The Simpsons' premiere in 1990, Fox was unprepared for its instant popularity and improvised, not always successfully.

"They had too many products, and they didn't do a good job of controlling the knockoffs," says Gary Caplan, who runs an independent licensing consulting firm. "That probably slowed (the franchise) down a little bit."

The folks at Fox also were stymied because they didn't know how the characters would develop.

"A lot of licensees took the limited art (that Fox had) and put it on the front of a T-shirt or backpack or whatever," recalls former Fox merchandising chief Al Ovadia, now an independent consultant. "In the early days, you didn't know enough about it."

Toymakers had different problems as they tried to figure out how to capitalize on a show that seemed to celebrate underachievement — irking cultural critics from Bill Cosby to then-president George H.W. Bush.

"Mattel, mat who had a big Simpsons license, got cold feet," Groening recalls. "When they got cold feet, things dried up. They were very nervous about the controversial nature of this sweet little cartoon show."

Groening, who tries to oversee as much of the merchandising as he can, says that he didn't help matters.

"We did the first Simpsons bendable (toy characters) in 1990, and I wanted to make them thick so they'd look like the family," he says. "But there's a reason why bendables have a flattish design. It's so they'll actually bend. With the original Simpsons bendables, you'd have to be a strong man to actually make them bend."

Those issues have been worked out. And after about 450 episodes, people not only know the show's stars — Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie — they also know many of the more than 300 characters introduced over the years including Apu, Patty and Selma, Ralph Wiggum, Principal Skinner and Comic Book Guy.

That adds fuel to the money machine. Fox can sell specialized products with images of the secondary characters to hard-core fans and still satisfy general audiences who just want a basic T-shirt with Bart.

It also opens options to market The Simpsons overseas, which is important. "This is a property that has a history of being more successful outside the United States than inside," says Stone.

The Simpsons Movie, released in 2007, is the best-selling film of all time in Argentina, Groening says. Britain, Australia, Spain, the Netherlands and Latin America also are unusually hot markets, when sales are adjusted to population size.

But the TV show doesn't appeal to the same kinds of people in each country.

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