TUNE IN TOMORROW

Fueled by an exclusive five-year agreement with Capital Cities/ABC and a variety of projects currently in production, Jim Henson Prods, and its creations may soon be as plentiful on networks and cable channels as they are on the sidewalks of Sesame Street.

Under the terms of the agreement, the two companies will work together to produce family television programming, Henson’s home-grown product, which networks largely have overlooked because of the recent successes of adult-oriented fare. The companies will have equal ownership of all programming created under the partnership. CapCities will contribute funding and control domestic syndication of all programming, with ABC getting a first peek at all new Henson television ideas.

What ABC declines then can be pitched to other networks, cable stations and alternative outlets. Henson will control worldwide television rights and the vital global ancillaries of licensing, merchandising, publishing, interactive, theme-park rights and live-arena shows, all of which should strongly augment the company’s established licenses.

Henson and CapCities would not discuss the financial terms of the agreement, but sources close to the pact estimate that CapCities will give Henson $30 million to $40 million during the next five years. “Basically speaking, it’s an equal partnership, with both parties bringing something to the table,” says Charles Rivkin, president and chief operating officer of Jim Henson Prods. “Each partner is doing what they do best, with Henson bringing its creativity, its existing infrastructure and its strong ability to manage character-based franchises.

“Now, we don’t have to worry about cash on a series based on foreign pre-sales,” he adds, referring to the television industry’s practice of pre-selling foreign rights in order to keep the production dollars flowing. “By virtue of having a deep-pocketed partner, we have the luxury of making the best possible sales without having to make the sales expedient.”

Rivkin describes Henson’s relationship with ABC as “very comfortable,” which clearly seems the case as the company already has sold two primetime series to the network. In pre-production and slated to join the ABC lineup early next year are the tentatively titled “Muppets Live!” – an updated version of “The Muppet Show,” featuring the Muppet regulars and a bunch of new felt faces – and “Aliens in the Family,” a comedy about an interplanetary couple (he was a human single dad, she an extraterrestrial single mom) who set out to raise their strange family in the suburbs. The 13 episodes of “Live!” and eight episodes of “Aliens” ordered by ABC marks the first time Henson has had two weekly primetime shows simultaneously in production.

“We’ve always had a productive, enjoyable relationship with ABC,” said Alex Rockwell, executive VP of creative affairs. “And with their funding, we’ll continue to increase the number of projects we can develop each year. It’s going to be an exciting time for both of us.”

Talent search

Funding also will provide Henson Prods, with the financial means to seek out the necessary talent more aggressively: puppeteers, character designers, animators, writers and producers.

“The sitcom format is getting a bit stale and formulaic and, as ‘Muppets Live!’ and ‘Aliens’ prove, it’s not in our bones to create traditional formats,” Rockwell says. “We’re always going to be radical and push the envelope with broader shows and different kinds of programming to fall under the Jim Henson name.”

Other projects in production include a second season of “Jim Henson’s Animal Show With Stinky and Jake” for the Fox Children’s Network and the NBC miniseries “Gulliver’s Travels,” an adaptation of all four episodes in Jonathan Swift’s book, starring Ted Danson, Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, and scheduled to air in the spring. “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree,” a CBS holiday special, aired Dec. 6, and “Muppet Time!” interstitials (Henson has produced 40 of the value-themed snippets) continue to pop up on weekday mornings on Nickelodeon’s preschool-geared Nick Jr. block.

“We have high hopes and plans to create a lot of strong programming for ABC,” Rockwell says. “But our relationships with other broadcasters, especially Nickelodeon and Fox Children’s Network, are just as important. Our intent is to work with everybody and make great family programming for all broadcast venues,” she adds.

Henson Prods, has taken a dozen stabs at a weekly series since “The Muppet Show,” hitting the mark with such inventive entries as “Fraggle Rock”(HBO, 1983-1987), the animated “Muppet Babies” (CBS, 1984-1992), and “Dinosaurs” (ABC, 1991-1994), the critically acclaimed technological forerunner to “Aliens in the Family.” Beneath the Fraggles’ rocks, though, do lie such Henson misfires as “The Jim Henson Hour” (1989) and “CityKids”(1993-1994).

There also have been about 25 specials over the years, including such holiday TV standards as “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together” and “A Muppet Family Christmas.” Interestingly, “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” Henson’s 1992 musical version of the Charles Dickens classic and a big screen hit, originally was conceived as an ABC-TV holiday special.

ABC and Henson now are having preliminary talks about developing a Saturday morning educational program for 1997. With children and family programmers racing to expand into the burgeoning world marketplace, Henson and ABC are laying the groundwork so their projects will resonate around the world.

“Jim always looked at the world globally, with TV as the great communicator,” Rockwell says of founder Henson’s prophetic eye on the international market. “Puppets add a great opportunity for international programming, and CapCities certainly has that same global appeal in mind – to create programming that travels.”

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