'Downton Abbey' Popularity Spurs Merchandise

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As the drama series 'Downton Abbey' builds a cult following around the globe, retailers have been quick to react to the craze for capes, cravats and all things British beating the series' producers at capitalizing on the "Downton" brand. That's set to change in 2013, the show's executive producer told CNBC.

Set in Edwardian England, the primetime Emmy-winning and Golden Globe-winning period drama following the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants, is in its third series in the U.S.

It's become an unlikely hit worldwide, showing in over 200 countries and attracting 120 million viewers worldwide.

Gareth Neame, Executive Producer, Downton Abbey
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Gareth Neame, Executive Producer, Downton Abbey

The popularity of the show has translated into a boom for U.K. retailers who have reported massive sales of arm-length gloves, fur capes, cravats and waistcoats that the Edwardian characters wear in the series. Even the old-fashioned liquor sherry has enjoyed a 15 percent rise in sales according to retail chain Marks and Spencer.

Devised and produced by Carnival Films, a British production company that was bought by NBCUniversal in 2008, the makers of "Downton Abbey" have been somewhat slow to capitalize on the show's success since it first aired on U.K. television in 2010. (Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC)

Carnival Films' managing director Gareth Neame defended the delay, however, telling CNBC the show had to be an assured success before launching itself as a brand, and that the Downton Abbey brand would launch in earnest this year.

"We'll be working across an entire range of products coming out this year. From fashion, apparel and homeware and furniture to wallpapers, beauty products and stationery," Neame, who is also the show's executive producer, told CNBC.

"Some of these things have been available since 2012 and we publish books and have made a music album, but the more complex products take time," he said, adding that there would be even more scope for merchandising in the future.

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"It's a very slow burn the moment you get into retail, it's extremely cautious, it has to test the established brand…No one wants to launch products if the show's going to be a flop," he told CNBC.

"In retail terms, the first series launched the program and the brand, the second year ratified it and the show didn't even hit its high point in the U.S. until this year when series three ended in the U.S…It's very rare for a British drama to have this much retail potential and merchandising value," Neame added.

Highclere Castle
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Highclere Castle

The popularity of the series has been attributed to the public's fascination for British heritage, its class system and nostalgia for a bygone age. Its popularity has transcended national boundaries, rating highly in Brazil, Singapore, Russia, South Korea, and the Middle East, according to data collected by NBC Universal International.

The show is set to be aired in China later in 2013. The season three premiere set a record 7.9 million viewers in the U.S. for the PBS network on which it aired. Filming for the fourth series, which will air in Britain in the fall of 2013, is already underway.

Highclere Castle, the country home where the series is filmed, has seen a dramatic increase in interest for its wedding services. The castle, 50 miles west of London in the county of Berkshire, is owned by the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.

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"Our wedding business was actually perhaps greater before 'Downton Abbey' because there are now less days available, given how many days are taken up with filming! However, it remains strong and we have inquiries from Americans and bookings from couples from New York, which is obviously delightful," Julia Morgan from Highclere told CNBC.

"The same comment applies to conferences – we now tend to concentrate on more exclusive private dinners and tours and the tours in particular are now in much demand. The number of days we are open to the public remains similar but when we are open now, we tend to be fully booked," Morgan said. "[We] hope that the Americans will continue to be enthralled by both the real building and its stories, as well as Downton and its fictional characters."