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Inside The Muppets' Decade-Long Journey Back to Prime-Time TV

ABC places its biggest fall bet on Kermit and Miss Piggy

This month, ABC will debut its first prime-time Muppets series since Muppets Tonight in 1996.

Bill Prady has been having the same conversation over and over again since ABC announced in May that his revival of The Muppets had secured a spot on the fall schedule. "People come up to me and say, 'I really love what you're doing, and I'm really excited about it,'" says Prady. "And then they lean in and say, 'Listen, the Muppets were a really important part of my childhood. Don't fuck this up!'"

It's not only the multiple generations of fans who grew up on Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of Jim Henson's magical creations who are counting on Prady to successfully bring the Muppets back to prime time and restore the embattled franchise to its former glory. ABC is betting heavily on the show shoring up its Tuesday lineup, while parent company Disney has dreams of growing The Muppets—like corporate cousins Marvel and Star Wars—into another lucrative, multiplatform franchise.

With the Sept. 22 premiere looming, Prady is feeling the pressure. "It's a scary thing that you're working with this very important franchise that is a big part of people's lives—and we're doing crazy things with it," he says.

Just how crazy? Audiences are about to find out, as ABC debuts the first prime-time Muppets series since Muppets Tonight in 1996. Prady's update, co-created with Bob Kushell, is filmed mockumentary style, à la Modern Family and The Office. It is set behind the scenes at Up Late with Miss Piggy, a late-night talk show hosted by a certain hot-headed swine, executive produced by Kermit and staffed by fellow Muppets. (Fozzie Bear is the sidekick/announcer, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker handle props, and moralist Sam the Eagle is—what else?—the network's standards and practices representative.) And just like the beloved Muppet Show from the '70s, there are also plenty of celebrity cameos, including Reese Witherspoon, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks and Josh Groban.

The Muppets is the highest-profile example of the biggest trend on TV this fall: networks building shows around a pre-sold brand in an effort to cut through the clutter and attract audiences that are overwhelmed by too many content options (see "Why TV Is Packed With Pre-Sold Brands"). As such, advertisers see The Muppets as a "safe" show this season, assuming it doesn't disappoint fans, notes John Muszynski, chief investment officer at Spark. "It's going to have to have that same kind of humor, which was just magnificently written in the past, with multiple levels that also work for people who aren't as familiar with the brand," he says.

While millions all over the world have a warm place in their hearts for the Muppets, which were created by Jim Henson in the '50s, the characters didn't really hit their stride until the '70s, when they spawned The Muppet Show as well as several feature films like 1979's The Muppet Movie and 1984's The Muppets Take Manhattan. The franchise went adrift after Henson's sudden death in 1990, and a decade later, Henson Productions was sold to German media company EM.TV. The Henson family bought it back in 2003, then sold the Muppets to The Walt Disney Co. in 2004.

The Muppets represents a homecoming for Prady, who landed his first entertainment job in 1983 at what was then called Henson Associates. As a writer, he worked on everything from the animated version of Fraggle Rock to the Muppet*Vision 3-D attraction that still exists at several Disney theme parks. He left the company a year after Henson's death.

Then, the year after Disney bought the Muppets, Prady pitched the company his vision for a TV series. While the original Muppet Show spoofed variety shows, a popular genre at the time, his version would send up mockumentaries. "The guy looked at me like I was from Mars," says Prady, who two years later pushed the idea again, after the Muppets had moved to a different division within Disney. This time, they let him shoot some test footage, which even Prady admits was unsuccessful. He put his Muppets dreams on hold and went on to co-create CBS' The Big Bang Theory, the No. 1 comedy on television. (He now oversees both series.)

Given how the Muppets brand stagnated as it was bought and sold (the last Muppets movie, Muppets From Space, had come out in 1999), "the timing wasn't right" for a series during Prady's earlier attempts at a revival, offers Debbie McClellan, vp of The Muppets Studio and an executive producer on the new series. "As a company, everyone felt we needed to relaunch to a bigger mass audience," she says.

So Disney spent the next few years methodically resuscitating the Muppets brand and reintroducing it to audiences. Some of these attempts were successful (a 2009 video of the Muppets performing Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" racked up more than 47 million views), others not so much (the 2008 NBC movie A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa). Finally, the 2011 film The Muppets put the franchise back on the map, grossing $165 million worldwide.

With the release last year of the sequel, Muppets Most Wanted (which grossed only half of its predecessor), Muppets Studio finally felt ready for bigger things. "We said, let's make them how they were on The Muppet Show, where every week there's something going on, whether it's YouTube content, stuff on Disney Junior or a weekly series," says McClellan.

That prompted longtime Muppet puppeteer Bill Barretta (also a Muppets executive producer) to reach out to Prady around New Year's and suggest he revive his pitch. The third time was the charm. Prady met with Kyle Laughlin, svp of Disney Consumer Products Interactive Labs, who works to extend the Muppets on digital platforms. Laughlin thought Prady's idea would be perfect—for Netflix. The streaming service was interested. "But in the middle of these discussions, ABC said, 'How come you're not pitching it to us? We're your corporate sister,'" recalls Prady.

Those at the broadcast network instantly saw the show's potential. "It's very ABC because it's fresh and yet it's using a franchise that's already out there," says Paul Lee, ABC Entertainment president, comparing it to the network's fairy tale-based drama Once Upon a Time. Prady assumed, given that the network was nearing the end of development season, that ABC would want the show for the following year, but Lee was adamant that it be fast-tracked for fall. "If you watch a presentation that you fall in love with, you see it doing really well on the schedule, and you've got showrunners who have a very clear vision, there's no reason not to go for it," as he puts it.

Under the gun, Prady agreed to create a 10-minute pilot presentation rather than the typical 22-minute pilot episode and brought on Kushell as co-creator and showrunner. ABC loved the presentation and gave The Muppets a vital slot on its fall schedule: Tuesdays at 8, where Fresh Off the Boat had finally made some headway in the spring.

In crafting the revival, Prady and Kushell had two goals: making the Muppets more today ("They're going to be contemporary and feel like they occupy the same space we do for the first time," says Prady) and more adult. After Henson's death, "it became more of a kids property than an adult property, which is what Jim Henson meant for it to be at the beginning," notes Kushell, pointing out that Henson's original pilot script for The Muppet Show was called Sex and Violence with the Muppets. "It was meant for adults, and we're going back to that," he adds. "We're trying to strip them of their kid-like quality."

The Muppets through the years

 That doesn't mean that the new series won't be family friendly. "There's an emotional component to the show that will still resonate with the parents and the kids," says Kushnell. "The jokes that will be racier and more adult are things that will work on two completely different levels." (One example: a joke that the Muppet house band, Electric Mayhem, is "always happy … legally now!")

Explains Prady: "Jim Henson was very much a risk taker." But after he died, "the reaction was to protect the characters, almost like an overprotective parent, and I think that is a mistake. If you don't take risks with the characters, there's no reward possible." ABC feels the same way. "He's respectful of the Muppets franchise, but he's irreverent and he's fearless," Lee says of Prady. "Those are the three things you need."

That said, Prady's bent to push boundaries was put to the test early on when Kushell suggested the breakup of Kermit and Miss Piggy, the franchise's longtime, beloved couple. "My first reaction was, absolutely not," says Prady. "But, I said I was going to be boldly bold." So, Kermit is now dating another pig, Denise, who happens to be the network's head of marketing on the show. "We knew that it was going to disrupt something that people loved," says Kushell. "But the easy part of the decision was, let's do this so that we can give our two greatest characters on the show the opportunity to really grow and change."

While Prady and Kushell push the envelope creatively, Disney is busy exploring ways to monetize the brand. "Franchises obviously are an important part of how we at Disney do business," notes Laughlin, also an executive producer. "From a franchise perspective, with over 600 characters, it gives us the opportunity to tell lots of different stories."

To that end, Disney has brought in writers to create content for other platforms, including new characters who could potentially appear on the TV show as well. "Piggy emerged largely as a chorus pig from the original Muppet Show, and we aspire to create new characters and allow them to be part of the Muppets franchise by tapping into those platforms, then exploring them more deeply on the show," explains Laughlin. "That will also give advertisers a great opportunity to be on multiple platforms tied to the overall show."

Laughlin will continue to produce Muppets content for YouTube that is not tied to the series—like last month's "Jungle Boogie" music video—while establishing a social media presence for several of the characters to help promote the series.

"The whole goal is largely to play up this idea that they live in the real world and have real lives," he says. "Piggy's Twitter handle is her as an actress, versus the promotional activity that will go around the show. The interplay between those two is really what's exciting because she can acknowledge and participate in things."

Chief among them: the drama surrounding her split with Kermit, which was announced at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour. Since then, the relationship has played a major role in the show's marketing and social media efforts, as Kermit and Piggy publicly navigate their split.

"The social conversation this summer has been absolutely fantastic. You are engaging a younger audience through social media," Melissa Shapiro, president of investment at MediaVest, says of the sustained buzz around the breakup. The ability to retain longtime fans while attracting new ones "is super important when you're working with an already-branded program."

ABC also kept The Muppets front and center by releasing the pilot presentation online this summer after it received a rapturous response at Comic-Con. "We said, let's leverage this and do a lot of the heavier lifting for us," says Marla Provencio, evp, marketing and CMO at ABC Entertainment. "Because it gives you the real essence of how we're going to treat these characters and what they're going to be like."

That early exposure to the show is crucial given the network's high hopes for The Muppets on Tuesdays at 8 where it will face off against NCIS on CBS, NBC's The Voice, The CW's The Flash and Fox's freshman sitcom Grandfathered. "It is a very important night for us," says Provencio, and buyers agree. "I don't think the content's going to be the challenge—the challenge will be the time period," admits Shapiro.

If ABC's own stars are any indication, viewers won't be able to resist the chance to reconnect with their childhood icons. The network shot promos over the summer featuring the Muppets interacting with cast members from Scandal, Castle, Black-ish and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. "I can't tell you how many of the ABC talent wanted to be a part of this shoot. They begged us!" says Provencio. Notes McClellan: "People said that some of these people don't show up to their own promos."

More than any other new series, The Muppets offers advertisers a willing partner. In 2014, the characters appeared in ads for Subway, Toyota and Lipton leading up to the release of Muppets Most Wanted. Kermit and Miss Piggy were featured in an Audi integration during a promo for this past weekend's Primetime Emmy Awards, and the new series will feature a season-long integration with Chevy Volt. Any brand tie-in "has to have humor and silliness in it," says McClellan. "We're always going to be poking fun and pushing the envelope."

The fate of the Muppets franchise—and ABC's fall fortunes—might rest on his shoulders, but Prady is content to have finally realized the dream he first had a decade ago. While Disney and ABC have grander ambitions for The Muppets, "these things aren't brands to me, and they aren't positioned in the marketplace," says Prady. "They are friends with whom you reunite. And that's what this experience has been for me."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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