Monday, September 22, 2008

So much attention about moi! The Muppets get the Hannnah Montana treatment

Miss Miss Piggy? I sure do. But guess what-- The New York Times reported yesterday (Fuzzy Renaissance, September 21, 2008) that not only is Miss Piggy coming out of cold storage, she and the rest of her Muppet Pals are getting the "Hanna Montana treatment, being blasted into every pop-culture nook and cranny that the company owns or can dream up."

For starters there are the specials on Disney Channel in which Muppets interact with High School Musical and Jonas Brothers stars. Then there are the viral videos on YouTube and the NBC Christmas special. And don't miss the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Muppets float or "Nightline" political interviews. And of course there's plenty of merchandise: Muppet clothing at Urban Outfitters and Limited Too stores; Muppet-theme stuffed animals and tote bags at Macy’s; and a Muppet boutique at the New York flagship of F. A. O. Schwarz.

"We think there is a Muppet gene in everybody,” Lylle Breier, a Disney executive who is the new general manager of Muppets Studio told the Times. Still, she has a few challenges. Ms. Breier also said that recent focus groups indicated that some children could not even identify Kermit and Miss Piggy, much less ancillary characters like Fozzie Bear and Gonzo the Great.

It's really too bad. Since Jim Henson's death in 1990, his children have taken over the reigns to the family business but the Muppet characters have stagnated under changing ownership. Disney aquired the "Classic Muppets" in 2004; Children's Television Workshop owns the "Sesame Street" Muppets.

The article reports that while "Disney estimated three years ago that the Muppets would be generating about $300 million a year in merchandising sales by now, retail analysts say the total for 2008 will be closer to $50 million."

Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios (and Ms. Breier’s boss) told the Times: “Developing the kind of high-quality entertainment we have planned for the global relaunch of the Muppets takes time,” he said. “We want to be very, very careful that whatever we do is in the spirit of the Muppets and that we are enhancing the brand."

I couldn't agree more. While it certainly appears that Disney will leveraging every ounce of marketing muscle to bring the Muppets back to center stage, what isn't so clear is how they'll keep the Muppet magic intact in doing so. Time will tell. Kermit and Miss Piggy were originally created to entertain adults with clever and irreverant humor; Disney's strategy appears to be one where they simultaneously attract nostalgic older generations as well as the 6-12 year-old tween market. I wonder what Jim Henson would think about all of this. Or, more appropriately, what would Miss Piggy do?

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