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FISHER-PRICE ACQUIRES RIGHT TO PRODUCE BARNEY LINE

Barney the dinosaur is joining Elmo, Little People and Rescue Heroes in the Fisher-Price toy chest starting next year.

The East Aurora-headquartered Mattel subsidiary has inked a deal with HIT Entertainment for the exclusive right to develop a comprehensive line of products linked to the popular character. In addition to plush Barney items, Fisher-Price expects to introduce everything from infant and preschool toys to electronic learning aids, to games and puzzles.

Neil Friedman, president of Fisher-Price Brands, said Barney is a great fit with the company's character brands and classic infant and preschool offerings.

"The magic we bring to toys is the same magic Barney brings to kids," Friedman said. "There are so many positives in our association with Barney, the potential is just incredible."

Since arriving on the small fry television scene in 1992, singing his "I love you, you love me" theme song, the chubby purple dino and his friends have found a market among millions of preschoolers. In just over a decade, Barney has spawned sales of 55 million videos, 68 million books and 25 million stuffed animals.

Under the Hasbro label, the peak for Barney items came in 1997, when it was the 18th best-selling character license in the world. The following year was nearly as hot, ranking 19th in sales. But as of last year, the license had tumbled to No. 43.

That dip does not pose a concern for Friedman. "Barney has, in some respects, been neglected," the Fisher-Price chief said. "One of the things we do really well here at Fisher-Price is to tend our portfolio of classic products. We're expecting big things."

Christopher Byrne, a New York-based toy industry expert, said you can never underestimate the power of the perky purple dinosaur. "Not only is Barney a staple, the really cool thing is he has a new audience every 18 months," he said.

Byrne said a change of address to Fisher-Price will further tap that potential. "The thing that has made Fisher-Price so successful is its knack of adding contemporary innovation to staple brands. They have demonstrated that they can make the old new again."

In recent years, the East Aurora-based company has successfully updated such classic playthings as Little People, and several characters in the Sesame Street line. For this year, the toy maker is out with a fresh rendition of Tickle Me Elmo, the must-have plaything of 1996.

Fisher-Price isn't the only company banking on purple potential. London-based HIT Entertainment earlier this month acquired Lyrick Corp., the long-time owner of Barney's video empire, for $275 million. Barney was also recently guaranteed future television exposure through a fresh contract with PBS for 40 new episodes starting in 2002.

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