BERLIN - German media company EM.TV said Wednesday it is selling the Muppets' creator, The Jim Henson Co., back to the Henson family for a fraction of what it paid at the height of the tech boom.
Munich-based EM.TV bought the company and rights to the Muppets in February 2000 for $680 million in cash and stock.
But in May 2001, it said it was considering selling the Los Angeles-based firm. It has since sold some Henson assets for about $200 million.
On Wednesday, it said it was selling the rest of Henson for $78 million in cash and is keeping the $11 million that the Henson operation has on hand.
EM.TV said the sale would allow it to finish paying back a loan of 250 million euros ($286 million) that financed the acquisition of its stake in Junior TV, a joint venture with Germany's KirchMedia.
"It wasn't a sale for strategic reasons," EM.TV spokesman Frank Elsner said. "The main point was always to secure the liquidity of the company."
Jim Henson, creator of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and scores of other Muppet characters, founded his self-named company in 1958, inventing the term "muppet" as a cross between the words marionette and puppet. He died in 1990.
The buyers include Jim Henson's son, Brian, and Brian's brother and three sisters. The assets being sold include The Muppets, The Muppet Babies, The Fraggles, The Hoobs, Farscape and Bear in the Big Blue House, Brian Henson said in a statement.
The sale agreement still requires approval by EM.TV shareholders. EM.TV's annual general meeting is scheduled for July 20.
EM.TV was founded in 1989 and became a star of Germany's tech-heavy Neuer Markt stock market. But moves such as buying the Jim Henson Co. and half of Formula One motor racing left it deeply in debt. EM.TV already has disposed of its Formula One holdings.
The Henson children's "was in the end the most attractive offer," Elsner said.
He declined to name other bidders or to specify whether the Henson family submitted the highest bid. Among those reportedly interested was the Walt Disney Co.
EM.TV has recently held talks with a U.S. investor group led by former UPN president Dean Valentine on the sale of a 49.9 percent stake in the Jim Henson Co. It planned to put Valentine in charge of operations there while maintaining its own presence in the U.S. market.
In March, however, it canceled a letter of intent to sell the minority share to Valentine's consortium, saying it would continue negotiating with the group and other potential buyers.
"We always said both solutions were possible," Elsner said of EM.TV's decision now to relinquish the whole of the company. "There were always several people interested."
Asset sales since EM.TV bought the Jim Henson Co. - including the sale of "Sesame Street" rights - have brought in about $200 million, Elsner said.
Shares in EM.TV were up 12.2 percent at 1.10 euros ($1.26) in afternoon trading on the Frankfurt exchange. EM.TV shares peaked at 109.59 euros in February 2000.