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COMPANY TOWN

'Simpsons' Sales: Halving a Cow

September 25, 1997|MARLA MATZER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In early 1991, Simpsons merchandise began a free fall. Toy giant Mattel, reportedly angered by the Burger King dolls that they felt were too similar and less expensive than their own, dropped the license. Retailers, sensing a cooling of Simpsons mania, backed off.

"In early 1991, retailers bolted at the first sign of the market turning," Ovadia recalls. "A buyer from Target told me, 'I thought it was going to be a 10, and I bought accordingly. It turned out to be an 8.' So in his mind, it was a big flop, even though it had done better than most other properties ever do."

Today, Fox is still trying to resuscitate merchandise, under new consumer products head Pat Wyatt (previously of Mattel). The international market--where the show is fresher--may have the greatest potential. Some analysts think that if she succeeds in the U.S., it will be a feat bigger than Homer Simpson's appetite.

For one thing, though the show remains popular with viewers and critics, it was slipping in the ratings last season until the new animated hit "King of the Hill" was scheduled behind it. Household ratings are down about 33% from the show's height.

Acknowledges Wyatt: "There was an enormous exploitation of merchandise early on; there was a big glut. You have to pay for that for a while."

In Australia, as in Britain and other overseas locales, "The Simpsons" is relatively new. The show has only recently started airing on free TV. It has about 80 overseas licensees, which make more than 1,000 products.

Australia's Target department stores (not connected to the U.S. Dayton-Hudson chain) have embarked on a three-year commitment to carry Simpsons housewares, apparel and other items. A similar Simpsons "boutique" tested in some U.S. Kids R Us stores earlier this year flopped.

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There is still Simpsons merchandise in the U.S., but it's now more narrowly focused than in the show's heyday. Since Mattel quit making Simpsons toys, there has been no master toy licensee--the backbone of broad merchandising programs. But some licensees say that suits them fine.

"Classic, nostalgic licensing is really our focus," says American Greetings Corp. licensing director Betsy Novack, who acquired the Simpsons license two years ago. Based on its success with cards, American is branching out into stickers and kids' Valentines in upcoming months.

New Fox merchandise in the offing includes "Virtual Springfield," a just-released CD-ROM game. Fox took Simpsons interactive products in-house last year after doing a number of games (some successful, some not) with Acclaim Entertainment. Its first offering, "The Simpsons Cartoon Studio," has sold slowly.

There's still money to be made on Simpsons promotions. The CD-ROM inspired a recent "Simpsons house" giveaway, the focus of a big tie-in with Subway and Pepsi. Subway restaurants offered Simpsons cups, toys and watches and Pepsi decorated 15 million packages of soft drinks with Simpsons characters. Each contained a game piece to win the house outside Las Vegas.

Wyatt hopes this promotional buzz will spark sales of Simpsons merchandise. But today's restless climate makes that difficult. Even the Simpsons house is doomed for extinction: After the winner takes possession of the wildly decorated home, they are contractually required to redo the exterior to match all the other beige stucco houses in the sprawling development.

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