A New Era: Disney’s Muppets
Feeling like you’ve been through a bad divorce with the Muppets, Fraggles and Sesame now under three different roofs? Join the club.
February 17, is my bride’s birthday. It is one of our favorite days of the year. We took the day off work and had a busy day celebrating, on the go from start to finish. We came home yesterday afternoon to change clothes for an early dinner and rest a bit around 3:30. The Henson-Disney news broke about fifteen minutes later.
Like most of you, I was stunned when the news came down. I think we all knew Disney could buy the Muppets someday, but the courtship had being ongoing for so long, it seemed like a fairytale fifteen years long. There likely was a weird feeling in the pit of your stomach when it finally came to pass. That’s probably the case whether you are pro-Disney or anti-Disney. The way the deal is outlined and structured, it is nothing short of uncomfortable.
Through published reports last fall, we had heard that Henson was in heavy talks with Disney and Viacom for potential partnership deals. At the heart, Henson was looking for a video distributor with the five-year Columbia Tri-Star deal expiring in 2004. Talks were very serious. From continued rumors on the street, I expected Disney to get Henson’s new video deal (not unlike when Disney sold Henson videos in the early 90’s). Maybe it would even include the rumored ABC “Muppets' Wizard of Oz” or a new ride in the parks. Maybe… maybe… if everything was right, Mickey would get the entire Henson Company. But I didn't expect it to go down with the beloved characters all going in different directions.
No matter how you look at it, that “uncomfortable” feeling creeps in again when you realize the long-term effects of this proposed deal. After all, Disney is not EM.TV. Disney does not sell character rights. They swallow them up and put the Mouse’s permanent brand on them. Once the deal is signed, Disney will have the Muppets character rights forever. Case closed, done deal. You can’t go home again, but you can visit Disney World or Disneyland and pay dearly every step of the way.
From what we know now, in approximately sixty days Disney will be acquiring the rights to the Muppets, Bear and all of the television and film properties from these respective programs. However, the Jim Henson Company will continue to exist separately, without the Muppets or Bear. What is strangest of all, is that Henson still owns Fraggle Rock, Farscape, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Hoobs and presumably other non “Classic Muppet” properties (like Faffner Hall, Animal Jam, The Secret Life of Toys and Mother Goose Stories). Keeping the Creature Shop and fantasy projects separate makes some sense if that is the creative area Brian and Lisa Henson want to focus on. However, the other fuzzy puppet properties may be lost in the shuffle. Why didn't all the Muppets go to Disney and Henson keep the Creature Shop and fantasy projects? More than likely, Disney wasn't interested in Fraggles or Hoobs.
One of the major pluses is that the Classic Muppets will be back on American TV in a big way (at least for the short term). Disney will likely put a lot of dollars, production and merchandise behind the characters the next few years, especially in 2005 when the Muppets turn fifty. But at what cost? If any Henson show belongs on the Disney Channel, it’s Fraggle Rock. Never has the show been needed more in the world than now. But will Fraggle make it there? Probably not. Hang on to your Fraggle tapes (or the future Fraggle DVD’s that may make it to market). This is nearly the worst news possible for Fraggle fans. Gobo and the Fraggle five were left in the cold on this deal folks. Henson needs another company or distributor to step in and get their remaining properties like Fraggle Rock out there to the public. Promotion has never been Henson's strongest suit, it's always been creativity and artistry.
With the Sesame characters now happily at Sesame Workshop (which turned out to be a great deal), the Muppets and Bear at Disney (the jury is still out on this one), and Fraggle with the Creature Shop at Henson, it feels like a bad divorce where the siblings go in different directions. It only makes projects like “A Muppet Family Christmas” where Muppets, Fraggles and Sesame exist in harmony even more special. It’s unlikely the worlds will collide again. If you happen to see a new Kermit segment on the upcoming Sesame Street 35th anniversary special or 35th season, savor the moment. Since these programs were taped last fall and will air before the deal is finalized, we may only see the Frog on the Street one more time. The chances of PBS letting a Disney owned character on Sesame Street may be slim to none. Even if PBS gave the okay the chances Sesame Workshop could afford Disney prices for Kermit are virtually nonexistent.
Things are not all gloom and doom for the Muppets, at least not yet. Disney will orchestrate new advertising and marketing with the Muppets unlike anything we have ever seen. But once again, what will be the final cost? Not in terms of dollars, but of character presentation. Disney is all about quantity, not necessarily quality. There will likely be a new TV series with Disney’s muscle and promotion behind it and hopefully Henson’s Muppeteers underneath. Muppet specials and a theatrical film are likely in the future. Disney will take the Muppets in new directions (and possibly in direct competition with Pixar). The Muppets will likely live on for many generations. However, for some February 17, 2004 will be just as memorable as May 16, 1990. When Jim died we all wondered if there would ever be Muppets again. Now we know there will never be a Henson Company again, at least a Henson Company that owns Kermit the Frog.
Fans are asking a ton of questions, not to mention all the fears and excitement that some feel about the news. What will happen to the Muppeteers or behind-the-scenes Henson folks? Will Disney yank the great licenses of Palisades or Sababa for their own companies? Will Disney bring the Muppets back to prominence for adults and children alike or will they run the franchise into the ground with the release of ten new Muppet Sing-Along DVDs, "Muppet Fairy Tales II" or “The Greater Muppet Caper”. No one knows all the answers, but we do know that we plan to be here for the ride. In the corporate world, the Muppet family may be divided, but in the heart of fans like you and me, Jim Henson's Muppets can’t so easily be separated.
And by the way, my wife and I did have a lovely dinner. Happy birthday dear.