Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Untold Story of the Muppet Show

OK, sorry, it's actually been told before. In fact, I'm getting this tale from a book--an actual print book that was published decades ago. But isn't that a cool-sounding post title?

I highly recommend Sally Bedell's Up the Tube: Prime-Time TV in the Silverman Years, an excellent read, apparently written with Fred Silverman's cooperation, that explores many aspects of television history (the rise of the movie of the week, FCC involvement in programming, etc.) as it chronicles the rise of the legendary television executive. One interesting side story in the text involves the creation of The Muppet Show, which aired in syndication but could have been a network staple.

ABC executive Martin Starger was head of programming  in 1974 (Silverman was still at CBS) when he commissioned the primetime debut of the Muppets in response to Jim Henson's suggestion that his characters had widespread (that is, beyond the Sesame Street crowd) appeal. The resulting Muppets Valentine Show did not draw a big audience, but it did pave the way for another pilot, or as Bedell writes:

what the ABC publicity release called "an adult-oriented prime-time series featuring new Muppet characters to be telecast in the 1974-75 season."

ABC ultimately turned Henson away because, said Starger, "We thought it was a kid's show. We didn't think adults would watch it." The other two networks gave Henson the same response.

This is when the man with the best name of any producer in TV history--Lord Lew Grade--stepped in and financed Henson's production to air in general syndication all over the world, including on CBS owned-and-operated stations. Smith points out the series became the most popular syndicated program in the world and even says it will always be "the one that got away for the networks."

The Muppets retain appeal to viewers of all ages, but I wonder if Disney's caretaking of the characters has maximized the franchise's potential. Where is the rest of the series on DVD? Why isn't the show a part of the company's big Disney deal?

When Mike and I watched The Muppet Show, it was a big deal, a ubiquitous part of pop culture. In recent years, the Muppets are never out of the spotlight, as a failed reboot for ABC and a pair of feature films prove, but nor are they  a big part of younger viewers' lives. Are the Muppets doomed to be a nostalgia act instead of a bona fide ongoing cultural phenomenon? I don't know, but until then, we can check out rarities like that original Valentine's Day special (before they are pulled) and wonder why Disney doesn't do more to make the original material accessible.

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