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Jim Henson Co. sold to Germany media company

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FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) -- Big Bird, Kermit and Miss Piggy better brush up on their German.

Munich-based EM.TV and Merchandising AG is buying the Los Angeles-based Jim Henson Co., creator of the Muppets -- the biggest U.S. name to go German since Chrysler was bought up by Daimler-Benz to form DaimlerChrysler AG in 1998.The cash-and-stock deal announced today is worth $680 million.

"By acquiring The Jim Henson Company, we gain some of the most powerful and enduring kids' and family brands worldwide and get access to the world's biggest and most important media market," said Thomas Haffa, chief executive of EM.TV.

The Jim Henson Co. rose to international fame from its humble founding in 1958 with the hit television series "Sesame Street," "The Muppet Show," "Jim Henson's Muppet Babies," "Fraggle Rock" and a string of Muppet films. "Sesame Street," first broadcast in 1969, is seen in 140 countries.

EM.TV, which is well-established in Europe with television and marketing rights to the popular Japanese animation Pokemon as well as Bugs Bunny in Germany, said the deal would help it penetrate the American and Asian markets where Jim Henson's Muppets already have deep roots.

Still, EM.TV plans no shakeups for the Jim Henson crew, which will continue to have creative independence from its headquarters in Los Angeles, New York and London, said Florian Haffa, Thomas Haffa's brother and deputy chairman of EM.TV.

The Jim Henson Co. has been run by Henson's son and daughter and chief operating officer Charles H. Rivkin since Henson's death in 1990. They all will stay on.

"In Germany, we have a term that comes from English, 'Never change a winning team,"' Haffa said.

The buyout also gives EM.TV rights to more than 5,000 licensed Muppet products that have hit toy stores over the past 10 years, including the talking-and-laughing Tickle Me Elmo doll, which at one point triggered buying frenzies at toy stores across the United States. It will also control more than 30 million Muppet books sold in 45 countries.

The Jim Henson Co. also has production agreements with the American cable company Odyssey Channel, Capital Cities/ABC and Sony's Columbia Tristar Home Video in the home video arena.

EM.TV says it wants to work with the Henson Company on investing more in the fast-growing Odyssey Channel, which is operated jointly with Hallmark Entertainment. Odyssey Channel is seen in nearly 30 million households in the United States, though officials hope to increase that number to 50 million within the next two years.

Founded by Thomas Haffa in 1989, EM.TV produces children's and family programs, manages the distribution of such TV shows as "Pigs Next Door" and "Norman Normal," and produces various television specials such as the Snowboard World Championships 1999. The company has a portfolio of about 28,500 half-hour episodes marketed under the brand Junior.