Lean green fighting machine

For Kermit the frog, it's still "not easy being green," especially when his family doesn't have enough greenery in the bank to prevent him from being devoured by a more aggressive animal -- one with big ears and an even larger appetite for new acquisitions. But that hasn't stopped the Muppeteers from mounting a last-minute effort to preserve their frog and his friends in a Mouse-free environment.

Even as lawyers for Disney whisper that they're within weeks of finally closing a deal to acquire The Jim Henson Co. from German entertainment conglomerate EM.TV, Henson CEO Charles Rivkin has been meeting with major U.S. bankers, seeking their help in raising $200 million to put together a management-driven buy-back.

It seems the guys who actually operate the Muppets don't trust the Mouse. Henson staffers fear that --- given the "Do it cheaper! Do it faster!" mentality that currently pervades the Walt Disney Co. -- all the veteran puppeteers would be fired, replaced by less experienced performers who won't squabble when they're offered much lower salaries than their predecessors got.

Disney is eager for the deal to go through. For one thing, it needs fresh characters for its parks: Plans are already under way to add clones of Disney/MGM's popular "Kermit the Frog Presents Muppetvision 3D" attraction to the Disney Studios' Paris theme park and Hong Kong Disneyland.

Even more pressing, the company will need lots of new content to fill the broadcast schedules of two recent acquisitions: the Fox Family Channel and the soon-to-begin-airing Playhouse Disney Channel. Henson has an extensive library of previously produced programs the Mouse could drop into all those open time slots -- plus a large stable of already established characters around which Disney could quickly (and cheaply) build new TV programming.

Disney CEO Michael Eisner had a chance to fold Henson's felt friends into his company's repertoire of characters 12 years ago. But negotiations bogged down as Mickey's legal staff tried to weasel the best possible deal. After Henson died in 1990 before those talks were through, his widow and children nixed further negotiations, reportedly upset by the heavy-handed tactics of Disney attorneys.

This time, however, when EM.TV decided to sell, Eisner supposedly told his attorneys to get on a plane for Munich and "make it happen."

Still, price has remained a stumbling block during the past several months of negotiations. The German firm had paid $680 million for Miss Piggy and pals only 18 months ago. Disney wants to pay something along the lines of $200 million. (Though, in an effort to sweeten the pot, Disney supposedly offered to kick in exclusive European broadcast rights to some of the studio's recent hit films).

Unfortunate for the Muppeteers' bid to control their characters, it has been years since they have had a solid hit on their hands. Their most recent film, 1999's "Muppets from Space," bombed. So did the most recent TV series built around the characters, 1997's "Muppets Tonight!" As a result, the major financial institutions Rivkin has approached so far have been reluctant to contribute cash to his quest.

Indeed, image-rebuilding is one of the reasons Kermit seemed to be everywhere on the tube this past spring -- making appearances on "Hollywood Squares," chatting alongside Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," even sitting across from Regis on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Next month, the Henson Co. will try to pique the interest of the public and potential investors still further, kicking off a year-long celebration of the Muppets. The festivities get under way Sept. 22 in Pasadena, Calif., with the first annual MuppetFest, with performances by puppeteers who helped create the originals.

Of course, Hollywood (and the event's easy access for members of the entertainment-industry elite) is the real reason Rivkin & Co. are staging the MuppetFest event. They hope some hotshot with deep pockets -- a Steven Spielberg or a George Lucas -- will stop by the Pasadena Center, see that the public is still gaga over Grover, and finally agree to underwrite the staff's company buy-back.

Of course, the maneuver could still blow up in Rivkin's face. After all, Pasadena isn't all that far from Burbank, which is Disney's corporate headquarters. What's to stop Eisner's operatives from attending the event and -- after witnessing all the enthusiasm -- pressuring even harder to close the deal with EM.TV?. If Disney agrees to kick in an extra $50 million -- raising the ante to $250 million -- the sellers might be happy to pass papers ASAP. And that would leave Rivkin and his puppeteers without a hand to play with.


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