Arts & Culture » Eye Drive

This little Piggy went to the market



Maybe you saw the story. A year ago this month, it was in all the papers.

EM.TV buys Jim Henson Co. for $680 million, the headlines said. And the German entertainment conglomerate had huge plans for Miss Piggy and pals: new movies, new TV series, web projects and CD ROM games. Thomas Haffa, EM.TV's chairman and CEO, told Jim Henson's widow and children the sky was the limit.

Or at least it was -- until EM.TV's stock crashed late last fall. Saddled with billions of dollars in debt, EM.TV seemed to be sinking fast. Thankfully, Germany's other media giant, the Kirch Gruppe, threw EM.TV a lifeline.

But there were conditions attached to the bailout. Chief among these was the demand that EM.TV immediately divest itself of all unnecessary assets. Which, apparently, included the Jim Henson Co.

So late last month, Kermit & Co. were quietly put back up for sale. And guess which American entertainment conglomerate has suddenly developed a fondness for felt?

The Walt Disney Co.

Eleven years after their first merger attempt crashed and burned, Disney is toying with the idea of buying the Jim Henson Co. again. It's a purchase that could have a huge impact on the Mouse's Florida theme parks.

The events that led to Mickey's first attempt to acquire the Muppets started when one too many memos landed on Jim Henson's desk. The Emmy Award-winning puppeteer and filmmaker had had it with the hassles of running his own production company. Henson longed to spend less of his time in meetings and more of his time being creative.

At the time, Disney CEO Michael Eisner had his own headaches. In May of 1989, Disney had just opened Disney/ MGM Studios, and guests were complaining there wasn't enough kid-friendly entertainment in the place.

Henson was desperate to get out from under the pressures of running a business. Eisner was desperate to come up with new characters to entertain guests. In one of those "Hey, you got peanut butter in my chocolate ..." moments, the two (who'd been friends since the early 1970s) met for lunch in June 1989. They were discussing a completely different topic when Henson broached the idea of Disney buying the Muppets.

Eisner immediately jumped. After all, he was a longtime fan. While serving as head of children's programming at ABC, Eisner had put up the money Henson needed to film "The Muppet Show" pilot. And here was an answer to his woes.

It was a handshake deal between two old friends, one that USA Today called a "marriage made in family entertainment heaven." But it never went through.

Henson died in May 1990. Then Disney's lawyers -- showing their usual lack of tact -- approached Henson's grieving relatives and began demanding all sorts of changes in the terms. The maneuver infuriated the Henson family, which decided then and there to call off the merger. Lawsuits were filed. Accusations of distasteful behavior flew back and forth.

In the end, the Henson family did allow the Mouse to continue showing the one project that Jim Henson had completed during his too-brief tenure as a Disney employee: "Muppetvision 3D," the wildly funny Disney/MGM attraction that represents the best use of 3D technology and in-theater effects in a Disney theme park.

But the other stuff Henson helped cook up during the eight months he worked with the Imagineers -- Great Gonzo's Pandemonium Pizza Parlor, the Magnificent Muppet All-Star Parade, an entire Muppet Studios complex -- all got locked away. Until now.

Disney's Imagineers would love to dust off Henson's old plans, among them the "Muppet Movie Ride," which parodied all the behind-the-scenes stuff guests supposedly get to see while touring other exhibits in the park (and which would be a great fix for the tired and due-for-rehab "Great Movie Ride").

The folks working on Disney's Animal Kingdom also would love to get their hands on the creepy characters Henson created for his more adult fantasy films, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. These Imagineers feel the gaggle of goblins would be an inspired addition to Beastly Kingdom, the soon-to-begin-construction area celebrating mythological creatures.

Mind you, this is far from a done deal. Though Disney reportedly has offered EM.TV $300 million for the Muppets, that initial offer (less than half of what EM.TV paid 12 months ago) was rejected out of hand. Complicating matters is the fact that one of Mickey's main competitors -- Viacom/Nickelodeon -- also wants to get their mitts on the Muppets.

The bidding war continues. Will Disney come out on top? Remember that just three months ago, Eisner told European investors that Disney might consider an outside acquisition. (At the time, Disney was said to be mulling the purchase of British music giant EMI.) But he cautioned that the Mouse would not pay top dollar.

Could the Henson Co. have been in his thoughts? More important, given the $790 million that Disney recently wrote off when it shuttered, can the Mouse afford to spend more than $300 million in its quest for the Muppets?

Disney and Muppets fans, keep your fingers crossed. A new era may be dawning -- and the next big headline could be The Muppets Take Orlando.

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