"VeggieTales" and its beloved main characters, Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, have been delighting children for 13 years with Bible-based, values-focused animated stories. But when "VeggieTales" became part of NBC's Saturday morning lineup last month, fans and conservative media watchdogs couldn't help but noticing a difference from its straight-to-video offerings: the Bible verse ending each story was absent, as were most references to God. Phil Vischer, the original creator of "VeggieTales," soon spoke out, voicing his displeasure at the cuts. Vischer, who's previously sold the company but continues as a consultant to "VeggieTales," tells Beliefnet about the NBC deal, network television's aversion to faith-focuses shows, and what he's up to in his post-"VeggieTales" period.

Can you clarify what your involvement now is with "VeggieTales"?

For the last two years I have been helping out with voices and giving some input on scripts. And that's it.

And who actually owns and runs "VeggieTales" itself?

Classic Media, which is in New York City. They are a secular media company that bought the assets of my company out of bankruptcy in 2003. And they formed a new company, a new entity called Big Idea, Inc.

And do you have the sense that they're as committed to the Christian message of the show?

The folks at Big Idea Inc. are. But Classic Media--it's somewhat similar to EMI owning Sparrow Records, or HarperCollins owning Zondervan, where you have a parent company that says, "We think we can make the most money if you guys really focus on meeting the needs of Christians.” So, it's good and it's bad.

What do you mean by that?

It's good because all of these companies are focused on meeting the needs of Christians. If the choice comes down to doing what is good for Christians or doing what is profitable, as long as those two things are aligned, there are no problems with secular companies owning Christian companies. If what is profitable and what is beneficial becomes misaligned, then there will be problems for all those companies.

How does one navigate that, as somebody who is dedicated to bringing the Christian message out there but also, obviously, needs to earn a living and turn a profit?

It has very little to do with whether you're Christian-owned or secular-owned, and very much to do with the choices you make on a daily basis, between what people want to hear and what people need to hear.

I think the most vital thing is that the voices of ministry--and that's not necessarily the record label or the publishing house, but the author and the artist--that those voices remain independent. So it's one thing for Warner Brothers to buy Word Records. That's a little bit different than Warner Brothers buying [the Christian bands] Third Day or Jars of Clay, and telling the guys in the band the next five songs they're going to sing. So as long as the artists stay independent, then they really do have the ability to say, "You know, this is the song that I want to sing. And you can either release the album or not, but you can't make me sing a different song."

What is the background to the deal with NBC?

Ever since Classic Media bought "VeggieTales", they've been trying to figure out how to get it onto TV, because a lot of people have assumed, “Hey, you guys would be selling a lot more videos if you were on TV like everybody else.” Whether that's a true assumption or not remains to be seen, because "VeggieTales" has already sold more videos than about 99 percent of kids' TV shows.

You may or not know this, but none of the major networks are in the kids business anymore, because there isn't enough money in kids' advertising, and Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network have pretty much taken it all over. So the major networks now basically rent out their Saturday mornings to production partners to provide them with the blocks [of programming].

Classic Media [in partnership with Scholastic] saw the opportunity to step in and take over the NBC Saturday Morning block. So, they proposed a literacy and values block, where Scholastic would provide shows about literacy, since that's what they're all about, and Classic Media would provide shows about values, which is "VeggieTales".

So from the beginning it was never pitched as a literacy and religion block. What I think it came down to was NBC just didn't watch enough of the shows to really know what they were getting. When a character comes out and says, "God can give us strength," is that a value? Because it sounds an awful lot like a religious statement.

And so Classic then approached me and asked me if I could help take the "VeggieTales" library, which are shows of all sorts of crazy lengths, and turn it into a TV season. And my first question was, "Well, what can we say?" I thought, there's no way NBC wants a religious kids' show on Saturday morning. I mean, they're NBC--and ABC or CBS wouldn't want one, either. It's just not the way the networks are wired.

At that point, whoever at NBC had watched a couple of shows, the only thing that they had flagged was the Bible verse at the end, and it appeared that they just hadn't watched enough shows to see how consistently they got religious in the body of the show. So they came back and said NBC says it's just the Bible verse that is the problem. Everything else is fine.

And what was your reaction to that?

“That's amazing” I was, like, “Wow, you're kidding me. Okay, well, this could be fun, then.”

And so, we were putting all those together and, about two weeks before the first three episodes had to be delivered to NBC, they got a rough cut of one of them and watched it and sent a note back that said, "You can't say, 'God made you special' and 'He loves you very much' on network television." And I thought, "Oh no. This is not what I was hoping for." So at that point, there wasn't much time to do anything other than just change that line.

So we changed that line, and I thought, "Well, at least the stories are going to stay the same, and God comes up fairly often in the stories. That's still a cool thing." And four days before we were supposed to deliver those first three finished episodes, we got an e-mail with a whole list of lines that NBC Standards and Practices was requiring be removed from the shows, and it was any reference to God in a contemporary context that implied God might actually affect our lives today.

“The Bible says that Samson got his strength from God.”--that was okay, but the next line the character said was, "And God can give us strength, too." That was not okay. Because now we've crossed the line into preaching or proselytizing, telling kids something that is specific to one religion.

And what was your reaction to that list of requests?

That it was time to go home and lie down. That was not what I'd signed up for. So, Big Idea Inc. in Tennessee has been doing those edits, and, at that point, I just tried to finish the new stuff we were creating to host them and get that done. I thought about just walking away, saying, "I can't be associated with this anymore." But the guys at Classic and the guys at Big Idea really needed my help, and I didn't want to leave them high and dry.

But the show is still presenting Bible stories.

Some of them are Bible stories, some of them are contemporary stories or parodies and spoofs, and some of them still work fine, because, for example, one story was simply teaching that to be a good friend, you need to treat others the way you want to be treated. And it didn't pull in Scripture in the story to support that, or didn't reference God directly to support that. It was really just teaching that value. But, you run out of the stories that were written that way.

And then, you get down to the stories like Dave and the Giant Pickle, the retelling of David and Goliath, where the core message is that little guys can do big things, too, with God's help. If you take off the "with God's help," I don't even know what you're saying--that we can all do whatever we want? That's not what the story was about. The story was about God's power expressed through people who don't have much power. So, unfortunately, too many of the stories really aren't about a value at all. They're about God, and those are the ones that aren't going to hold up very well.
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