You may have seen Jim Henson’s original pitch video for The Muppet Show. It’s brilliant, funny, and a reminder of Henson’s genius. You might assume that this pitch reel is what sold The Muppet Show, but in fact….
…. The pitch didn’t work. After viewing this pitch reel, all US TV executives passed on The Muppet Show as a prime-time network series.
It wasn’t until Henson had sold the show to Lew Grade, head of the British station ATV, and it became a hit in the UK, that US executives were willing to get on board with The Muppet Show as a syndicated series.
Is this simply because the US executives lacked vision?
Perhaps, but with great respect for Henson (I loved The Muppet Show), I see one serious problem with his pitch.
I believe this problem was the key reason executives passed, and that by highlighting this issue, we can learn how to pitch our own projects better.
See The Pitch From the Decision-Maker’s POV
At the time Henson was pitching The Muppet Show, the muppets were known for their appearances on Sesame Street where they had been featured for several years.
Sesame Street, as I’m sure you know, is aimed at preschoolers and airs in the morning. The essence of Henson’s pitch was that he could take the same characters and make them appealing to adults watching in prime-time at night.
In hindsight, we know that this worked. But imagine that someone today pitched you a version of the Teletubbies, Yo Gabba Gabba, or Thomas the Train for an adult audience in prime-time.
That’s a tough sell.
This is the problem with Henson’s pitch: he didn’t do enough to persuade decision-makers that The Muppet Show would succeed with an adult audience.
Example: Henson’s Short Pitch
Here’s the top of the video which contains Henson’s short pitch:
In conclusion, I would like to point out that it is time for a revolutionary new look in primetime variety television, and the combination of the Muppets and George Schlatter can bring this to the world.”
This short pitch doesn’t effectively make the case for adults watching it in prime time.
Words like “revolutionary,” “unique,” and “original” are scary to decision-makers because it is code for “so far this has never worked.”
Rather than focus on how revolutionary The Muppet Show would be, I would have highlighted elements which could appeal more to an adult audience, e.g.:
Building on the success of Rowlf the Dog, the most popular recurring character on The Jimmy Dean Show, The Muppet Show will be a comedic variety show with singing, dancing, spoofs of popular TV shows, and celebrity guests.”
This short pitch could be more appealing to executives because:
- It highlights Rowlf, the only muppet who was a prime-time success.
- It links The Muppet Show with The Jimmy Dean Show, a popular prime-time show.
- There were other successful prime-time variety shows with singing, dancing, and celebrity guests (e.g., Laugh-In, The Cher Show).
Example: Description of the Audience
Here’s the section of Henson’s pitch where he describes the audience:
Small children will love the cute, cuddly characters. Young people will love the fresh and innovative comedy. College kids and intellectual eggheads will love the underlying symbolism of everything. Freaky, long haired, dirty, cynical hippies will love our freaky, long haired, dirty, cynical Muppets because that’s what show business is all about!
As you know, the way TV makes money is through advertising. It’s hard for decision-makers to anticipate who would advertise during a show watched by small children, young people, college kids, intellectual eggheads, and dirty, cynical hippies. Febreze, perhaps?
Rather than telling us about the multiple demographics, I would have showed more proof of the concept by using singing, dancing, sketches that spoofed popular TV shows, and having a celebrity guest.
Just to be clear, I’m not promising this pitch would have worked—only that I believe Henson’s pitch would have had a better shot if it more clearly addressed the key objection: that children’s characters aren’t suited to prime-time.
Luckily, British TV execs took the risk. Thanks to the UK!
UPDATE (July 25, 2012):
Here’s a comment I received from Craig Shemin, President of The Jim Henson Legacy, a non-profit organization dedicated to celebrating the work of Jim Henson.
“I’m afraid you’re not evaluating the entire Muppet Show pitch. This was only the end of a much longer presentation — this is why it begins with “in conclusion.” The full pitch reel included many clips from Muppet appearances on prime time variety shows like Ed Sullivan, The Tonight Show, The Cher Show, etc. So, in fact, Jim actually did do what you said he should have done. The video is the only part of the pitch that could be released for rights and clearance issues. It was released as a bonus feature on The Muppet Show DVD.”
I would love to see the whole pitch (and I’m sure I’m not alone). I considered removing this post altogether because it’s based only on a segment of the actual pitch. However, I think it’s still worth seeing the segment, as well as considering how a decision-maker would view it.
Thanks so much, Craig.
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