NEW YORK -- 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.
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.
"In Latin America, it's primarily a kids program," Dekel says. "We're targeting elementary school-age children with school supplies and apparel sized for them. In the U.K., we have a kids program and an adult (merchandise) program. We started an infant line, and we're launching a ladies (clothing) line: The Ladies of Springfield. And in the U.S., it tends to be teens and dads that love The Simpsons."
The show has also become more marketable as it became more mainstream; the humor that used to seem so cutting edge is much tamer compared with risqué animated shows such as Fox's Family Guy and Comedy Central's South Park.
"It was once a crazy kids and teenage property," says Oliver Gers, a licensing expert who used to work at marketing firm IMG. "But it has evolved with its audience into a family show."
That fact seems to bemuse Groening.
"The goal for me was to see if I could invade pop culture — my tastes are a little more oddball and non-commercial," he says. "It was an attempt, at least in the beginning, to see how far I could push it. It's still a pretty odd show. It turned out to be popular. But it easily could have gone the other way."
T-shirts are cool
Now the goal is to keep up with trends in pop culture. For example, Fox is developing a style guide for licensed apparel and other merchandise that adopts the graphic-heavy look of classic rock album covers and tattoos, newly popularized by Guitar Hero and other video games.
"Somebody who's going to the Troubadour to watch a live show from a local band wouldn't mind wearing a shirt — it still looks cool," Dekel says. "But if you look at it closely, you'll say, 'Hey, that's Bart's head in there.' "
The Simpsons has an advantage over rivals when it comes to putting the characters into a commercial context. Most residents of Springfield are eager to get rich quick, so the real-world merchandising can become part of the gag.
"We try not to have Homer hold up a product and endorse it," Groening says. "On the other hand, Krusty the Clown will endorse anything because that's his character."
Is there anything that the Simpsons wouldn't sell? Groening says that he vetoed a proposal to have Simpsons slot machines.
Dekel, though, says he keeps an open mind.
"There were times years ago when we probably would not have done some of the products we're doing today," he says. "But society, culture and the marketplace evolve. The sensibilities of the show evolve. So I never say never."
Yet while he hones his strategy to turn the Simpsons into enduring and marketable pop icons, Groening says it's important to remember that the show itself has to come first.
"We try to keep the whole Simpsons juggernaut funny and surprising," he says. "From there, everything rolls out. But very rarely is anything within the show done in a calculated way."
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