The Muppets Are About To Go To War

Disney and Time Warner Make Big Business From Friendly, Fuzzy Puppets

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Get ready for dueling Muppets, with teams backed by two of the world's largest media companies.

The fuzzy characters created by Jim Henson now have Walt Disney and Time Warner investing in them, and that means a lot more programming and promotion for everyone from Oscar the Grouch to Fozzie Bear.

Disney got the ball rolling in May, when its ABC TV network gave a greenlight to The Muppets, a half-hour comedy series making its debut on Sept. 22. Then on Thursday, Time Warner's HBO channel announced a five-year deal to carry "Sesame Street," doubling the number of episodes in production and securing rights to air them first on TV and on the Web. The deal also gives HBO the rights to a new "Sesame Street" Muppet spinoff series.

There are two main sets of characters in the Muppet universe: cuddly ones such as Big Bird and Elmo, who teach kids to count on "Sesame Street," and a wise-cracking bunch that include Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, made famous in the 1970s in "The Muppet Show" and subsequent films. While the audience for the Sesame Street crew skews very young, the two groups coexist and sometimes even cohabitate because of the creativity of Henson and the dealmaking of his heirs.

"They're all fruits from the same tree, but they're designed for different things,'' says Brian Jay Jones, who wrote "Jim Henson," the 2013 biography of the entertainer.

Kermit, Mr. Henson's most-famous character, made his debut on "Sam and Friends," a show on WRC in Washington, D.C., in 1955. Mr. Henson used Kermit to pitch the eventual producers of "Sesame Street," which began airing on public television in 1969. He created new characters for that program and for the syndicated The Muppet Show.

Public TV regulars Ernie and Bert appeared in early episodes of "The Muppet Show." Sesame Street characters such as Big Bird have made cameos in films such as 1979's "The Muppet Movie" and 1984's "The Muppets Take Manhattan." Kermit regularly appears in both Muppet worlds.

Mr. Henson was negotiating the sale of his company to Disney before he died suddenly in 1990. A decade later, his children, including daughter Lisa and son Brian, sold the business to Germany's EM.TV & Merchandising, after which the nonprofit Sesame Workshop acquired the rights to the "Sesame Street" crew.

"Lisa Henson said that was their natural home,'' Mr. Jones, the author, recalls. Disney acquired "The Muppet Show" characters in 2004.

While the 1970s program parodied the variety shows popular at the time, ABC's new take will be a mockumentary-style look behind the scenes at a late-night talk show hosted by Muppets. Disney hopes to win over both a new generation of kids and their parents.

"Anybody who hasn't seen 'The Muppets' in the past will see this whole new world,'' co-writer and executive producer Bob Kushell told TV critics at a press event on Aug. 4. "Anybody who has grown up with it, as we all did, will have that nostalgic feel but also have their minds blown by the new way we're doing the show.''

Even before this week's deal, Sesame Street writers have been having their fun with HBO properties, putting up online parodies such as "Birdwalk Empire'' and "Game of Chairs.''

More shenanigans can be counted on, as evidenced by Disney's announcement last week that Kermit and Miss Piggy had broken up.

"It can be tough to work with your ex, you know,'' the puppet frog told critics at the Aug. 4 event. "I don't know whether any of you out there have ever dated pigs.''

~ Bloomberg News ~

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