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DEALING FOR DISNEY

Kermit Is Now Part of Magic Kingdom

A $90-million deal for Jim Henson's Muppets has nothing to do with Comcast, executives say.

February 18, 2004|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner insists that he doesn't have any puppets on the board of directors. But he bought a bunch of them Tuesday for the company.

The Burbank-based entertainment company said it sealed a deal, valued at about $90 million, to acquire the Muppets -- including Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy -- from Jim Henson Co.

Executives at both companies said the Muppet acquisition had nothing to do with Comcast Corp.'s unsolicited bid for Disney last week.

After all, the Muppet talks had been going on for six months and the size of the transaction itself was hardly big enough to make it a "poison pill" -- or even a "poison pig" -- that could fend off the advances of the cable giant.

Instead, executives said it represented a harmonious Hollywood union between the family of the legendary creator Jim Henson and a company known for its marketing muscle.

"Disney is a great company and a great home for the Muppets," said Lisa Henson, co-chief executive of the Hollywood-based firm. "This is a deal that was a long time coming -- nearly 14 years."

Her father, Jim Henson, was working to sell the characters to Disney for about $150 million in 1990, before his unexpected death that year.

On Tuesday, the Muppets gave Eisner an opportunity to tout some good news. He has been under fire by critics who allege, among other things, that the Disney board isn't independent enough.

Eisner said he had admired Henson's creations for years.

"Since the time I worked with Jim Henson on the first Muppets TV special in the 1960s, it was obvious to me that his characters would make a deep imprint on the hearts of families worldwide," Eisner said in a statement. "We are honored that the Henson family has agreed to pass on to us the stewardship of these cherished assets."

Disney also acquired the rights to the "Bear in the Big Blue House" and that library of television shows. The deal doesn't include Cookie Monster, Bert, Ernie, Big Bird or the other residents of "Sesame Street." Those characters are owned by Sesame Workshop.

The deal allows the Henson company to develop new shows for Disney that feature the Muppets or characters from "Bear in the Big Blue House." Disney aims to relaunch the Muppets with new movies, DVDs, a TV series and theme park attractions.

The Disney and Henson companies have enjoyed a profitable collaboration before with two movies: "The Muppet Christmas Carol" in 1992 and "Muppet Treasure Island" in 1996.

Henson's five children sold the company in February 2000 to the German media company EM.TV for $680 million. But the German firm became handcuffed with debt from other deals and the Hensons bought the company back last year.

The deal makes good on Eisner's pledge to build upon Disney's renowned stable of classic characters. Peter Murphy, Disney's chief strategic officer, said the purchase did just that.

"The Muppets are evergreen characters. Kermit was created in the 1950s," he said. "These characters have a lifelong appeal to multiple generations."

The Muppets are "culturally significant," said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of media and popular culture. But he cautioned that the "Muppets that pack a cultural wallop are the ones over on 'Sesame Street,' " which are not included in the deal.

"Kermit and Miss Piggy, I'm not sure how much longer those are going to be relevant characters," Thompson said. "They were huge in the '70s and '80s, but I'm not sure we're going to be celebrating Kermit's 75th birthday the way we just did with Mickey" Mouse.

Times staff writer Richard Verrier and Todd Pack of the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Expanding kingdom

What Walt Disney Co. is getting in the planned purchase of the "Muppets" characters and the "Bear in the Big Blue House" franchise from Jim Henson Co. for about $90 million:

Muppet characters including Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and Animal, in addition to the Muppets' film and television library. (Transaction does not include the "Sesame Street" characters, such as Big Bird and Elmo, which are separately owned by Sesame Workshop.)

* "Bear in the Big Blue House" characters, in addition to the television library.

* Worldwide distribution and merchandizing rights to all the newly acquired characters.

* A programming development agreement with Jim Henson Co. for shows featuring "Muppets" and "Bear in the Big Blue House."

Los Angeles Times

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