Anyone want the Muppets for Christmas?
of The Guardian
They are for sale - if you've got the money.
The last time the Muppets got a relaunch, it didn't go down well. Once pioneers of pastiche, Kermit and Miss Piggy were plunged into misguided self-parody in the environment of a spoof talk show, Muppets Tonight. It was dropped after its second series. That was five years ago. Since then, the return of a regular Muppets TV show has been repeatedly hailed but has never materialised, and the Jim Henson Company has been through what even its senior executives admit have been turbulent times. Now, some 25 years after the foam-and-fur humanoids burst on to British screens when Lew Grade gave them a break, they are at a crossroads.
The survival of the Muppets is something of a saga in itself. When their creator died of pneumonia in 1990, Wall Street gave his company little chance; as one newspaper profile put it, the company was built around a single "hippy visionary". But Henson's son Brian agreed to take on the challenge and became president at the age of 29. It was a tricky transition from family firm to the corporate swamp; he later handed the reins to his chief operating officer, Charlie Rivkin, who became the first non Henson to run the company.
Rivkin steered its sale to the German media firm EMTV for £430m in 2000. But EMTV quickly plunged into debt and soon put the Muppets up for sale. A number of Henson's assets were hived off the Sesame Street muppet characters were sold to Sesame Workshop last year, and Henson's stake in Crown Media Holdings was sold for about £60m.
The rest of the Henson division has been on the market for the past year. A number of potential suitors have been named, but nothing has yet been confirmed although executives insist a deal is near.
Disney has long been linked to the Muppets - Henson was negotiating a complex sale to the giant when he died. Recently, billionaire investor Haim Saban, who made his fortune with the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, has emerged as the main man in the frame, offering a knock-down £81m for Henson.
Rivkin remains chief executive and has himself been linked to a potential management buy-out. He insists the Muppets are safe, whoever takes them over. "It's very difficult to run a company that's publicly for sale. And in many ways we have been for sale for several years now, because we sold to EMTV only three years ago. So, as the CEO, it's very difficult to keep a business focused in such a public environment. But I'll say that we have never been busier, and we have never been more successful. We have focused on our business and tried to avoid the distractions at a corporate level. I'm convinced that as a result of the groundwork we have laid, the future will be bright with the new owners."
Certainly the Muppets haven't gone away. The characters have continued to appear in commercials: Miss Piggy starred in a Virgin airline ad here, while the Muppets are featuring in the latest MasterCard campaign in the US. Kermit has addressed the Oxford Union, as well as duetting with Kylie Minogue on ITV1's An Audience With Kylie last year. The new Muppet movie was screened on NBC in the US two weeks ago, and was shown in Britain on Sky Premier last night.
However the much-heralded new TV series has yet to materialise. Two years ago Rivkin said the characters would return in a TV show to be screened in Britain - which he described as the Muppets' strongest market - but he now says the strategy has changed. Instead, a series is in development with a view to being broadcast in the US first. Rivkin says there has been considerable interest from British broadcasters .
There is no doubt that the Muppets have an enduring appeal, despite their essentially low-tech nature. Rivkin says: "It comes back to what Jim Henson believed about our characters - he said they have a sense of caring for each other. They always exude a positive feeling, a positive view of life. That's key to everything we do. What our company stands for fits well with our times today: it's not just a 'retro' feel. The world is in many ways a very complicated place right now and the Muppets are comfort food."
Despite the competing attractions for children today, Rivkin believes they have a continuing appeal. "The Muppets are very human and with that humanity comes faults. They are each flawed in their own charming way, and they are timeless. There is always a positive sense, and I don't think that ever goes out of style. We have also tried to keep the characters current, evolving their personalities with culture. We are trying to appeal to today's audience as well as the audience of 25 years ago."
Crucial to the company's continued survival has been its diversification. The characters in Hoobs and Bear in the Big Blue House come from the same family; but Bear fans would not necessarily make the association. Rivkin says: "The Muppets are absolutely our core brand but the Muppet look and feel is as much as part of our company as the classic Muppets themselves. If you look at Jim Henson's Bear in the Big Blue House, clearly there are muppets on that show. There are certainly muppet elements in the Hoobs and Mopatop Shop."
But he also acknowledges that the Muppets are the Henson company's core brand, and much rides on the success of the new TV series. "In many ways", he concedes, "it's ours to lose."