Far from kids TV - Broadcasting & Cable

Far from kids TV

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Brian Henson's creative heritage goes back more than 40 years, when his father, the late Jim Henson, developed one of the most successful programming franchises by playing with puppets on television. The whimsy of Kermit the Frog evolved into the multinational
, multimedia Muppet empire known as the Jim Henson Co. Brian Henson started in the Creature Shop, the breeding ground for mechanized hand puppetry gone awry, and went on to direct and produce several Muppet feature films.
He is now chairman of Jim Henson Co., and his current projects are mostly in television: a partner in the Odyssey channel, a miniseries for CBS, Disney Channel's

Bear in the Big Blue House
and Sci Fi's

Farscape. Farscape,
a series about an American astronaut lost in the far reaches of the universe, is one of the most ambitious departures ever from the house of Henson, home of children's TV. Here, Henson talks with B
roadcasting
& C
able's Deborah McAdams about how
Farscape
came into being, how it landed on Sci Fi, and the rewards and pitfalls of working in cable.

There has been an influx of very prominent producers and people from the film world into cable projects. The Jim Henson Co. has had a long relationship with television, most of it for children. How did you get involved in
Farscape, and was it specifically developed for cable?

To start with, I wanted to do something that was more adult and showed off everything that we can do from our Creature Shop for television, because we'd been doing a lot for films and didn't have a television series that sort of captured that. Science fiction is quickly where we went-Alex Rockwell and myself, both being science-fiction fans-because we wanted something that was adult fantasy.

From there.we wanted to do something that was much more character-driven than most science fiction.and something that was much more daring, something that was like science fiction with no rules, where the characters could drive the series more than the plot line.

Rocky came up with the concept of throwing a normal, American earthling into the middle of this alien reality. We'd write material around how extraordinary this world is, because you have one character reacting like you.thrust into another galaxy, where everything is alien.

Did you shop it to a broadcast network?

It was developed out of our British office and initially set up at Fox. Fox ordered scripts on it. I think we wrote five to seven scripts. I don't remember now; this was years ago, way back in 1992. And, between '92 and '94, we were really working with them. Then there were a lot of changes at Fox Television. A different science-fiction series kind of came in with the new executives, so our series was put on hold.

We took it back and considered doing it as first-run syndication, then started thinking maybe there is a cable partner that would want a show this big. Rod Perth had a look at the show, over at Sci Fi. He was running Sci Fi at the time, and he basically said, I love this series, and we'd be ready to spend pretty good money.

Now, the reason it worked so well for us is-Sci Fi being a cable channel, just like first-run syndication-we were able to do a full order for a full season, not just a pilot. The economics of producing pilots, where you have an ambitious show like this, are virtually impossible.

How expensive?

A pilot of ours probably cost about $7 million, which nobody would ever do. So that's what led us to the Sci Fi Channel. Also what's great about being on a cable channel vs. a network is, they made a major commitment. They understand it's going to take a while to find their audience.

They're not looking for record-breaking ratings on the first episodes airing. They expect to take a little time building an audience. Our shows tend to be unique enough and interesting enough that they're not so much like something else. But they tend to need a little time to build an audience. So, everything worked very well on this show, doing it with the Sci Fi Channel. And we're also able to do it as a co-production. This one is an Australian co-production.

The Creature Shop is in London. How did Australia get involved?

Basically, whenever we're looking for production financing for starting up a show, we tend to look at more than one country. So we look for a British-Australian co-production or a British-Canadian co-production, or an American-Canadian co-production, or something like that.

Why?

It does two things. It can give you tax savings where you're shooting, and it also gives you a commission from two countries, rather than a commission from one country and acquisitions from everywhere else. So, if you have a co-production, you'll get commissions from two countries, which obviously helps the financing tremendously.

In household-reach numbers, Sci Fi ranks No. 25. In that sense, it's a bit exclusive.

I'm betting on Sci Fi being able to grow as a channel. And Sci Fi is betting that
Farscape

can grow them as a channel. So it's sort of like everybody's got their chips on the table, in America, with this particular show. They're paying a lot of money for it, and they're basically relying on us, as the flagship, to grow their channel. Even the amount they're paying doesn't make sense to us as a company, unless they can grow their channel.


Farscape

is pulling in around one million households. I can tell you, on a good night, a single run will earn a 1.7 rating.

That's modest compared with theatricals and broadcast. You can get five, maybe 10 times that number of people elsewhere. Does that ever make you consider
not
taking a project to cable?

Absolutely, especially if you're a company like us: You are relying on the ancillary businesses like merchandising and publishing to make money. If you have a smaller audience, that's a problem. Having said that, we wanted to be the most talked-about underground hit on science fiction, and I think we're there.

If you go to the science-fiction conventions and stuff like that,
Farscape

is certainly the most talked about. But the audience is small. We did a lot of thinking about this beforehand. That was part of why we named the show
Farscape

. We thought we needed a word that was not a word-a word that would belong to us, so that when people tried to find our show on the Internet, when they type
Farscape
, they'll get us. And we wanted to make sure that we could get as close a link as possible to the show.

Our Web sites are getting 500,000 hits a day. The
Farscape

Web site is probably getting three times more hits per week than the show is actually getting audience. So we're trying to build as close a relationship as we can with that audience and then give them whatever they're asking for. What we're doing now is a limited line of collectors' items that the people who are watching the show can buy before they hit the shelves.

Is international distribution necessary if you have limited U.S. distribution?

I think that it's probably fair to say that, if you have limited U.S. distribution, you better be a hit in two other major territories outside of America.

And what are those for
Farscape?

I don't know yet, because it's only in English-speaking territories. It's been moving around in Australia, and so it's just sort of finding an audience. In England, it's doing very well. It's just premiering in Germany. I have real high hopes for Germany, which is the second biggest market in the world.

How does having the show on cable impact international distribution?

When you're with a cable channel, international distributors, even though they love the idea of the show's being on network television, also know it can be gone in a minute. It's nice for them to know that you're partnering with someone in America who will push hard for a year to try and make it work and not pull it off the air.

We've heard it's around $1 million per episode.

The broadcaster wants people to think it's not so expensive. It's a lot more than that, but we are unspecific about our budget.

Was there any talk about sharing a window with USA?

You should talk to Sci Fi about that. I think we would like that, obviously, because we'd get a bigger audience. But then, it's odd, they don't need it so much. It's such a perfect show for the Sci Fi Channel, because it so perfectly matches their mission. Basically, our show matches what they're trying to do to their whole channel.

What was your first production for cable?


Fraggle Rock

was commissioned, I think, in 1980, and that was our first series for cable. I think it might have been
the

first series shot for cable, on HBO.

We also have a series on Fox Family that we're shooting right now called
The Fearing Mind

. We have two shows for the Odyssey Channel. [The Jim Henson Co. owns 22.5% of Odyssey.] Truthfully, as a company, we've had the most luck on first-run syndication and cable networks.

Because our shows are so unique, we tend to not go straight in and get a huge audience. Even
The Muppet Show
, if it had been on a network, would almost have certainly been canceled, because it required nine months to grow its audience.

Of course, once it grew its audience, then it was the No. 1 show. But it took time. Like all of our shows, we don't produce series where we can just borrow the stars that had the highest rating and channel a story line.that allows them to play such a similar part that the audience can almost feel like they're watching a continuation of the last show. We're not that kind of company.

Well, that's what we are as a company. We don't exist to make money; we exist to promote our creative mission and to expand the minds of our audience. That's why we come to work. As a company, we have to make money, but that's not why we come to work. Our biggest [financial] success right now is
Bear in the Big Blue House

[for Disney Channel].

Will
Farscape
go into syndication?

Syndication is such a weird thing these days. When you say syndication, what you're implying is off-prime time hours on network television. Maybe not, because, right now, there are cable channels that will often pay you better than syndication.

So, maybe yes, maybe no. It all sort of depends when we get to that opportunity. It could be that Sci Fi decides, "My gosh, this is doing so well for us, we want to keep the rights to it, even though we're not commissioning it anymore."

Maybe they'll be the ones with the highest offer. We're certainly banking on having long-term value; we always do. But I don't even know what a show going into syndication particularly means anymore. I know what it means by the definition.


Farscape
is an ambitious undertaking.

It sure is, and right now, as a company, what we're good at doing is producing highly ambitious shows that are highly imaginative and fairly unique. Frankly, right now, it's tending to work better with the cable channels that have a more targeted mission. Whereas the networks are still so broad in what they're looking for and often are sort of trying to cater not to the lowest common denominator but to the least-interested common denominator.

On that note,
Farscape
is sort of the antithesis of reality programming, television's flavor of the moment. It is as far away from that as you can possibly get. Do you take that into consideration on a project like this, in terms of timing in bringing it to the market?

As everybody who's seen the writing on the wall knows, everybody is swinging towards reality programming, although it's typically narrative where they're staging everything and shooting it. But.we'll never change to become a reality programmer. I don't think anybody in the company would be interested in coming to work anymore. So we sort of said, "You know what? Let's look at this as a positive for us, that we're going to be the premier producer of fiction-narrative-driven shows while everybody else is shifting to this other model."

At least your programming has a shelf life. Most reality programming only has so many miles.

The original
Star Trek
continues to have a following. Do you think
Farscape
has that potential?

Well, sure. We're very careful to make sure it does. We're careful to make sure it can't date itself. Except for some of the costuming, nothing about it can make it topical or culturally specific. Probably in 20 years, you'll look back at
Farscape

and say, "Oh, look, they're wearing trendy '90s costuming," but, other than that, there won't be anything that will make it a 20-year-old show.

The only thing that dates on
The Muppet Show
, which has been on the air since 1976, are the guest stars. Nothing about the rest of the show does.

That show was extraordinarily simple for some of the people it had on, such as Orson Welles playing with these puppets. Is there any thought of interjecting that sort of celebrity power in
Farscape?

In a lot of ways, you undermine the credibility of a science-fiction series if you start marketing it for being contemporary with stars that are on covers of fashion magazines. I thought putting Whoopi Goldberg on
Star Trek

worked very well, because of the way she embraced it. It's not particularly something that we would look for, but, if we had the opportunity, we might do it. It just comes down to the right casting.

Did your father have any interest in doing something like
Farscape?

No, not at all. He died two years before we even started talking about it.

So this was one of your goals-to do something, as you said, more adult.

Yeah. Basically, I'd always been working in the Creature Shop. Until my father died, that was really what I did in the company. When he died and I took over the business, which was mostly children's television, the Creature Shop was still doing a lot of feature work. I tried to figure out how to bring it more into the core business of the company, and the only way to do that was to bring what the Creature Shop could do into television.

And knowing that the first series would be hard work to break into that area. The one-hour drama, with a fantasy content, was going to be a hard thing to break into.


Farscape

did it very well, and then
Fearing Mind
, which is also an adult horror series. Now what I'm trying to do is create more of those, because I think bringing the Creature Shop back into the core business is a really good thing for us.

What else are you working on?

I'm producing a project in England for CBS [
Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story,

a four-hour miniseries].

Is it easier to work with a cable network?

Yeah. But doing one-off with a network is great. I'm having only a great time working with CBS on this movie. It gets a little harder with a series, mostly because it's all about the ratings. It doesn't matter what anybody says. And with a one-off movie-heck, you cast it carefully, then you do a big old marketing campaign, and it either worked or it didn't. That's probably kind of a pain in the neck, too, because it's not whether it's good or not; it's how did it rate?

Would you like to do more broadcast-network projects?

If we have something that we really think could be just right for network television, we'll show it to them. But what we really want to hear is a very enthusiastic response.
Farscape

took weeks to find an audience. A network gives you four weeks, and that's that. If you didn't find it in four weeks, you're dead. With our company, we work too many years on things to do that. There's too much passion invested. There's nothing more soul-destroying that having a good series cancelled after four weeks. And then having a network say, "You know what, it's a really good series. I don't know, maybe the marketing missed, or maybe it's just the wrong time." You just want to kill them.

Did you watch Sci Fi before this all started?

Yeah, I did. I'm their core audience.

What did you watch?

Well, at that time, mostly what they were playing was just old science-fiction movies, and I would constantly stop because I love science fiction. I don't think at that point they were showing any series. I think ours was the first series they commissioned.

Are you a sci-fi geek?

I'm not a sci-fi geek, but, if there's a science-fiction movie on that I've never seen because it did so badly, chances are I'll watch it, because it will be a movie I haven't seen and it's science-fiction. Then I can watch it for the monster or whatever the science-fiction device is. I enjoy all that stuff. But my favorite films are science fiction-I was a big
Blade Runner

fan, a huge
Star Wars

fan. I am their core audience: I'm 36, I'm right where their main audience is. My favorite television series for years was
Star Trek. The War of the Worlds

was fantastic. I can still watch that till the cows come home.

Some shows that do well with 18-to-34-year-olds are repeated several times a week.
Farscape
is on once. Do you object to having such shows repeated more during the week, or do you think it's better to limit the supply?

They could make a lot more money if they played
Farscape

10 times a week, but I think they're watching the HBO model, and what HBO is doing is very gutsy: They're not rerunning their series. ... They rest the thing for four months, and then they premier the next season. On that very first premier, they double their best ratings from the previous season and then hold it.

I think Sci Fi is really trying to do the same thing with
Farscape

. They're going to rest now. They're not even going into repeats. They're going to rest off the air for a few months, and then, when we re-premier, we will have a good marketing plan that gets our million people talking about how hungry they are to see it. Hopefully, we'll re-premier with better ratings than we ever had-even better than this year.

So, I like their approach. And the other thing, it's not going to burn up the series. The series is not going to get old quick if they do this. As long as those million people don't forget about us, I'm all for them taking this approach, because what they're doing is building a fanatical fan following, rather than a bigger, interested audience.

Will there be new characters next season?

There's always new characters that come in and out, and I can't really comment on running characters because, for this audience, we don't give away anything. We don't tell anything, and, if I told you anything, one of the producers would release misinformation on the Internet so that anything I said was dubious. Basically what we do is we try not to let people know what's coming. That's part of the buzz.

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