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NBC Makes Veggie Tales Safe for Kids — by Secularizing

A co-creator of “Veggie Tales” was not surprised when he learned that NBC would be cutting out references to God when it broadcasts the Christian videos for kids.

BY TIM DRAKE

Senior Writer

October 1-7, 2006 Issue | Posted 9/27/06 at 11:00 AM

 

CHICAGO — Phil Vischer is the co-creator of the tremendously popular Christian children’s animated series “Veggie Tales.” The franchise has sold more than 50 million copies of the series’ DVDs and videotapes. While the company was dissolved in 2003, Vischer recently worked to adapt the cartoons for NBC’s fall Saturday morning lineup.

What he didn’t expect was the network’s decision to remove most of the cartoon’s references to God. He spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake from his office in Chicago.

“Veggie Tales” recently aired on network television for the first time. Are you excited?

I think it’s a pretty cool thing. It’s an opportunity for kids who would never enter a Christian bookstore or a church to meet Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. We’re providing two shows in a three-hour block every Saturday morning. Those two shows were the most-watched shows in the block.

Did you know going in that NBC wanted to expunge the Bible verses?

“Veggie Tales” is now owned by Big Idea Inc., which is a division of Classic Media. They did the deal with NBC and knew the Bible verses probably wouldn’t work, I had been told. They decided that perhaps we shouldn’t use the kitchen counter-top set, so my company, Jellyfish, produced a new intro and ending to each episode.

My first question was what can we say and what can’t we? NBC told me that they didn’t want a sermon on Saturday morning. Aside from that, they said that they thought everything else was fine. We started the show based on that premise. That turned out to be not exactly correct.

I don’t think that NBC knew it was a religious show before they watched it. Once they watched it, in the first week of August, the standards and practices department suddenly started sending e-mails of all the lines that needed to be cut. They notified us of this two weeks before the first show was to air.

Had Classic Media known from the beginning what changes would be required, I’m not sure they would have gone ahead with it. They were taken off-guard and were very disappointed. Whether you’re Starbucks or Nordstrom, you don’t want to upset your fans.

What was your reaction?

It would have been nice to know two months previous. Looking back, I may have declined. I never wanted to get into the job of reducing the God quotient in “Veggie Tales,” but I had already committed to helping Big Idea and Classic Media out. Had I walked away, I would have left Big Idea in a bad position. I’m trying to view this positively. Kids can still meet Bob and Larry this way. The stories are intact. If they see the characters, perhaps they will pick up the unedited DVDs in stores and they will still find a way into their lives. If they don’t like them, the point is moot.

Why do you think this happened?

The people who produce kids shows tend to come from the Washington, D.C./New York/Boston school of programming, which is primarily PBS or the Los Angeles school, which is “give them anything they want” — action, disrespect, and so on.

There hasn’t been a lot of kids’ programming coming from a Christian worldview, so I don’t think that NBC ever had to wrestle with this. They had no principle that they could apply. I had to spend time going through what they were saying. What I seemed to have figured out is that they are okay with a Bible story if it’s in a historical context. We could say, “The Bible says God gave Samson his strength.” That was fine. But we couldn’t have Bob the Tomato turn to the kids and say, “God can give us strength too.” They said that’s not okay. When you apply a Bible verse to the audience, they said that is proselytizing. Parents who are atheists or Hindu may not like having their children be preached to.

There’s a heightened sensitivity because it’s for kids and it’s delivering a message. If it were on Sunday morning, then it would probably be okay.

Doesn’t the removal of God from some of the shows impact the entire story?

Yes. The newer shows focus more on values than God, so they have been the easiest ones to adapt for NBC. The shows that I wrote five to 10 years ago are thornier. In some cases, the whole story falls apart.

In “Dave and the Giant Pickle,” for example, Dave sings, “He’s big, but God’s bigger. ...” The whole song is about God. We’re still not sure what they are going to say about it. That episode may not air at all.

Back in 1994, a video distributor said they would put the videos in Wal-Mart if you removed the references to God, and you refused. What’s the difference between then and now?

The video distributor was managing the video shelves for Wal-Mart. They wanted to remove every reference to God. At that point, we were starving. I couldn’t do it because that would have put two different versions of the videos on the shelves. It was different.

In this case, we’re not changing the videos at all. I never wanted to create two different versions of the videos. We have one version on television that will never end up on a shelf or a video.

Some have accused you of selling out. Do you see it that way?

No. I’m not getting any money for it. It’s being done by Big Idea, hoping to expand the audience for the videos. It’s hard to look at it as a compromise for money. It’s a compromise in one distribution channel for the videos, which have the message intact.

Do you think the attention this story is getting is being blown out of proportion?

I’m baffled when we Christians are shocked that the world is acting worldly. I wasn’t surprised at all. I’m hoping the reaction doesn’t turn into a letter-writing campaign to make a big stinky fit. It’s NBC. What did you expect them to do? Jesus warned us that we will not be popular.

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.