While everything in the current development and production slate adheres to the family entertainment ethos, Rod Perth sees a need to ‘take some liberties. The Henson brand is a huge asset, but we can’t ever allow our reputation to become a handicap. We have to ensure we are relevant to today’s families.’
Underlining the point, JHC is working on two zany puppet-based, half-hour comedy series, Pig & Fish and Strange Dogs, which target a Simpsons audience. They are what Perth describes as ‘risky but fun.’
In the same way Farscape shook up sci-fi, Brian Henson is also keen to move into sub-genres of TV drama such as horror and fantasy. Currently the company has two horror projects on the blocks. One of these is a one-hour drama called Master of Horror, which looks at the double life of a horror writer as he slips between family life and his imagination. In addition, work has started on the script for a four-hour TV film version of Jack and the Beanstalk, due for delivery in May 2000.
The above productions call on the company’s skills in puppetry and animatronics, but not everything to come out of Henson in future will rely on Creature Shop magic. ‘The Shop is a huge asset that serves our editorial objectives,’ says Perth, ‘but we are getting interest from networks on several projects that involve no animation or creatures.’
A key issue for JHC is what to do with The Muppets themselves. Although the characters are still revenue generators for the company, there is a broad realization that they need to be updated if they are not to be filed away under ‘N’ for nostalgia by audiences.
‘The Muppets are our greatest asset and the whole issue of what to do with them demands a great deal of analysis and consideration,’ says Perth. ‘We need to introduce some new Muppets and a new context. They should return to doing what they do best-which is being funny and topical-and that requires a new attitude.’
Brian Henson underlines the point. ‘In the latest Muppet movie, Muppets in Space, we introduced a range of new Muppets, and these proved to be the most popular among audiences in research groups.’
According to Henson, the six Muppet movies have been good for creating a ‘short-term splash’ around the brand, ‘but not necessarily good for the bottom line.’ TV has been more effective in building awareness for new characters, and this is where the opportunity lies to reinvigorate the brand. ‘In the past, The Muppets operated in the arena of a stage or theater. We need to take them somewhere else,’ says Henson.
With his background, Perth is well placed to seek out opportunities on the U.S. networks. He is trying to greenlight a Sydney-based drama production at the moment and says he is close to a commitment from USA Networks.
However, international expansion is a parallel priority. Angus Fletcher, Henson’s London-based senior VP of international television, has won two U.K. commissions for Henson in the last two years and put in place the first deal for Farscape with Channel 9 Australia. He sees non-U.S. business as increasingly crucial to the company.
‘The U.S. is no longer the primary financier of programming, so that dictates a different programming and financing strategy. With U.S. license fees down and broadcasters trying to own and control all content, U.S. production companies have to operate in the way European and Canadians have always done.’
Fletcher was pivotal in clinching deals for Mopatop’s Shop and Construction Site-shows which he says ‘are very significant for us. They were both financed in such a way that the U.S. is not factored into the financing. Anything in that market is upside.’
In the case of Mopatop’s, Henson worked with U.K. producer/broadcaster Carlton to make 130 10-minute episodes for ITV. In doing so, ‘we showed we can produce a long-running, character-driven preschool series at a modest budget,’ says Fletcher. ‘I see no reason why we couldn’t go on to produce something similar for nonterrestrial networks.’
Fletcher believes the appeal of Henson is a combination of creative and commercial skills. ‘We can put a full proposal together in-house and, thanks to the Creature Shop, provide everything that goes with it. That is a big comfort factor for broadcasters. We also have a deep and intuitive understanding of how the international business works.’
Like Perth, Fletcher’s view is that JHC functions best when it ‘plays to its strengths. We aim to make programs that others can’t-shows that can put their heads above the parapet.’ Like his U.S.-based counterparts, Perth has not ruled out moving into other genres such as high-end factual. After the BBC’s monster hit with Walking with Dinosaurs, he sees a chance to exploit the Creature Shop’s model-making prowess.
Mopatop’s Shop was significant for Henson because of the link-up with Carlton. Going forward, Fletcher expects international partners to be key to the company’s development. ‘To retain autonomy, you need monumentally deep pockets or the ability to create significant partnerships with like-minded individuals.’
This message also flows out from L.A., where one of Henson’s most significant moves has been the launch of the Kermit Channel in partnership with Hallmark. CTW, a long-time friend of the family, is a major program supplier in that arrangement.
Henson sees the Odyssey and Kermit Channels as key pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. ‘When the market is controlled by so few players, it is important to have your own broadcast platforms. In the long term, they will develop into major outlets for our own product.’
Going forward, Henson is seeking to build a broad-based business with TV at the core. He is cautious about talking up the returns from publishing and licensing ‘because they are generally dependent on a big success in production.’ However, he views interactive and on-line as ‘an enormous opportunity.’ The potential to build mini-broadcast platforms on-line would get around the stranglehold of the majors on channels, while the opportunity to sell product on-line would overcome the squeeze on shelf space.
In a move that echoes his father’s interests, Brian also sees opportunities to develop JHC’s activities in ‘theme parks and live entertainment. It isn’t like 20 years ago. Now people are looking to be blown away by their experiences.’
The business is changing so fast that Henson claims not to be ‘locked into a structured plan.’ However, he has a clear sense of what gives the company its distinct positioning. ‘We stand for creativity and the empowerment of individuals,’ he says. ‘We want people to look at life through a new perspective and embrace diverse community. It’s a world village sort of thing.’