February 12, 2006
Reviving the Muppets

Via Mark Evanier, an article on Disney's attempts to revive the Muppets franchise.

As with many Hollywood comebacks, the saga of how Kermit is trying to leap back on top is a story of changing tastes and the eternal quest for green.

The executive in charge of the Muppets says the studio envisions Kermit and Miss Piggy as "evergreen" characters, akin to Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. Every division at the company is contributing ideas to the renewal project. Among the proposals under consideration: a mock reality TV series and a Broadway musical à la "The Lion King."

Kermit "has been resting on his reputation from the TV show of the late '70s," said Disney Executive Vice President Russell Hampton, referring to "The Muppet Show," which had an extraordinarily successful syndicated run from 1976 to 1981.


Kermit's fate shows how relatively quickly even a world-famous brand can ebb without constant upkeep. Since Henson's unexpected death at age 53, corporate control of Kermit and Miss Piggy has changed hands three times. Even today, Disney doesn't own the rights to all the characters that sprang from Henson's shop; Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Elmo and other icons of the preschool set belong to the nonprofit Sesame Workshop, producer of PBS' "Sesame Street."

Perhaps more important, the decline of the Muppets offers an instructive lesson in the vagaries of the market for family entertainment. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and others are vying for children's attention, constantly churning out a panoply of new characters for every age range and taste. While the latest generation of kids tuned in to Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants, the Muppets fossilized, as much a cultural artifact as mood rings or vinyl records.

"There was a certain creative malaise, post-Jim Henson," said Martin Brochstein, editorial director of EPM Communications, which publishes newsletters on product licensing and other marketing issues.

First of all, I agree with Evanier in that the least likely way to succeed with this project is having "every division at the company contributing ideas" to it. Find a visionary, give him or her a budget and a talented staff to work with, and get out of the way.

Second, while the Muppets are unquestionably family entertainment, I think a key to any revival will be to realize that many of the parents of the children they'll be targeting were fans of the old Muppet Show - I sure was. Capture the spirit of that show, and you'll have all those parents wanting to tune in with their kids. Get it right and I guarantee the parents at least will find it preferable to Dora and Spongebob.

Finally, I dispute the idea that Mickey Mouse is an "evergreen" character. Much more than the Muppets, Mickey is a victim of criminal neglect by Disney. But that's a different rant.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 12, 2006 to TV and movies | TrackBack

I can't begin to express how much I loved the Muppet Show. Somehow, though, I can't really imagine them doing episodes with people like Brittney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, though. That would just be too annoying.

Ew. I just imagined the Olsen Twins on a new Muppet Show. Blecch.

Posted by: Sue on February 12, 2006 9:42 AM

I got the first season of the Muppet Show for an early Valentine's present.

HM is fascinated by it, and she's never heard of most of the guest stars.

Posted by: julia on February 12, 2006 2:28 PM