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Maverick magician's mystery Muppet move

Published at Muppet Central,
January 17 2003

The latest man to express an interest in buying the Muppets is a former magician who once sued David Copperfield for $US50 million, and a dotcom entrepreneur with a fondness for bees who believed his company would be large enough to purchase Napster, Netscape and RealNetworks.

Herbert L. Becker made a surprise entry into the already crowded field of suitors for the Jim Henson Company Wednesday, announcing an unspecified offer to acquire all of Henson via his privately held company GlobalMedia. Henson -- famed as the home of the Muppets -- has been up for sale by its owner, troubled German multimedia conglomerate EM.TV, since late 2001. Rumoured suitors have included Disney, billionaire Haim Saban, and a management-led buyout team.

In December, an investment group led by former Viacom executive Dean Valentine announced it had signed a letter of intent to acquire 49.9% of Henson from EM.TV, in a deal reported value the company at up to $US125 million. Although there's no dollar value attached to the latest proposal, Becker claims his offer will value the company at a "premium" to previous offers.

According to Becker, his interest in purchasing Henson dates back to a meeting with Jim Henson himself in the early 1970s. "I have a great deal of respect for what he did and for what he still did not have time to complete," he said. "I am not comparing myself to him, but I will try to complete some of his dreams and to add a few idea of my own." But just what ideas does Herbert Becker have, and how do the Muppets fit into his plans?

GlobalMedia's statement announcing its bid alludes to its plans to use a technology Becker has developed to transmit broadcast-quality television over existing Internet connections. If that sounds like a somewhat magical feat, it's not altogether surprising.

Becker first rose to fame as a magician, often performing under the name the Great Kardeen. He is reported to have an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest ever escape from a straitjacket (24 seconds). Becker became more prominent when he began to expose the secrets of how magic tricks are performed in a 1995 book, All The Secrets Of Magic Revealed, which he promoted on the US talk show circuit.

Revealing just some of those secrets was enough to make Becker unpopular in magic circles. Becker then got into a fight with one of his publishers when, he claimed, they included chapters in a book revealing the mechanisms behind superstar magician David Copperfield tricks which were not supposed to be included.

Copperfield subsequently named Becker in a $US20 million lawsuit, claiming he was the source of a story in Paris Match claiming his relationship with model Claudia Schiffer was being faked for publicity purposes. Becker countersued for a reported $US50 million, claiming Copperfield was responsible to the alterations to his book. The dispute between the two was eventually settled, Becker issued a statement confirming that Paris Match knew claims of a contract outlining the conditions of the Copperfield/Schiffer relationship were fake, and Schiffer went on to win a suit against the magazine.

In the meantime, Becker's involvement in the emerging field of Internet multimedia had begun. A series of Canadian companies founded by Becker -- including Buzz Multimedia, Bee Multimedia, EnterVision and EVBCN -- have all been based on software claimed to have invented means of television broadcasting over the Internet without requiring special streaming technologies or plug-ins. The EnterVision technology worked by converting existing video streams into a series of compressed JPEG images accessed via a small server-side Java applet, Becker said.

In 1999, Becker told the Canadian Jewish News that while he was currently shopping his technology to record companies, it would quickly represent a threat to the then-emerging market for DVD movies. In a demonstration in March 2000, the company claimed it had made a full-screen video broadcast to 200,000 viewers, some of whom only had 64Kbps connections.

Such technologies put Becker's business in competition with much larger software companies -- a battle he did not appear to shy away from. "The obvious [acquisition] targets for us are those companies with a large and broad user base," he boasted in a 2000 press release that named Napster, Netscape and RealNetworks as possible targets. Bee Multimedia joined Microsoft's Windows Media Broadband Jumpstart program around the same time.

At that stage, the prospect of Becker aiming to purchase any content providers seemed remote. In April 2001, Becker told Canadian New Media that he had "no interest" in content-related acquisitions, echoing his earlier enthusiasm for seeking deals with record companies and other media providers.

Despite its aspirations to greatness, Bee Multimedia's main method for promotion was via freeware download sites, and it accepted payments for its products via PayPal -- hardly the hallmark of a large-scale company.

Nor were all users were impressed by the company's offerings. One comment on a download site described the product as a "complete waste of time . . . what you are really getting is a . . . psuedo [sic] browser skin with less options than IE 1.0. Bee Multimedia has joined my list of avoid like the plague sites."

In the relatively small world of Canadian multimedia, it wasn't long before Becker crossed paths with listed Canadian dotcom GlobalMedia.com, which was enjoying some success with audience measurement and broadcasting technologies. GlobalMedia.com had scored deals with a number of radio stations and other content providers, and at one time boasted former RealNetworks sales VP Jeff Mandelbaum as its president.

In late 2000, GlobalMedia announced plans to switch from radio technologies to focus on online video broadcasting. Shortly afterwards, Bee Multimedia signed an agreement with GlobalMedia.com to use its technologies to help develop content for an online motorcycle store. Becker subsequently joined the company's board in February 2001.

However, by then the rot had set in for all but the hardiest of dotcoms. In March 2001, GlobalMedia.com was delisted from Nasdaq's OTC listings after failing to maintain an acceptable stock price. In April, the founder of listed Australian company Isis Communications tried to organise for GlobalMedia.com to buy out Isis, but GlobalMedia.com declared bankruptcy before the deal could be completed.

When it shuttered, GlobalMedia.com had debts of $CA3.5 million and assets of just $CA361,500. Its assets were subsequently sold off by receivers Barnes, Kissack, Henfrey & George. The domain was acquired by an unrelated videoconferencing company, Becker appears to have acquired the business name at some point over the past two years.

He's also been busy with other transactions. In September 2001, he sold the rights to the EnterVision technology to privately-held Sector Communications. Under the deal, Becker was to serve as chief technology officer for Sector and take up a board seat.

However, the deal didn't stick. In January 2002, Sector, which had changed its name to Options Talent Group, sold its rights in EnterVision to Silver Investment Trading for $US250,000. (Options Talent Group has since merged with Trans Continental Talent, chaired by famed manager Louis Pearlman, the guiding force behind the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync).

Despite that setback, in June 2002 Becker re-emerged, promoting a service based on EnterVision known as Icravetvi which, like his earlier offerings, was based around online TV broadcasting (the software for viewing was called, imaginatively, The Television). Becker told the Washington Post he had a contract with the BBC to broadcast its content, as well as rights to other content libraries. The Post noted that a previous attempt by "one of Becker's associates" to launch an online broadcasting service had foundered due to legal concerns; Canadian company iCraveTV.com was forced to shut down in January 2000 after being banned from rebroadcasting existing US TV services.

While the latest EnterVision-based service also appears to have gone offline since then, Becker's talking up of the BBC deal demonstrates that he's now interested in content as well as technological wizardry. Assuming the funding and technology are available, buying the Muppets would provide Becker with a large library of content for his service.

EM.TV is reported to be in need of funds to meet interest payments, so it wants to conclude a deal quickly. Becker says he has backing from an investment bank. His upfront payment from Sector was $US200,000; not exactly small change, but unlikely to be anywhere enough to purchase the Muppet video library and character rights, let alone Henson's effects divisions and other assets.

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