2016-06-30
"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.
If you had it to do over, do you think the NBC deal was a mistake?

I think it was agreed to on false premises. I don't think everyone had their eyes wide open when they put the deal together. We'll be able to deliver some episodes that I'm perfectly happy with, but it's going to get to a point, near the end of the season, where I'm not at all happy with how the stories are turning out.

Can you talk specifically about some of the most painful cuts that you had to make in episodes?

I'm not even sure exactly--all the easy ones are done and delivered. About half the season is still waiting for NBC's review. So we have shows that are assembled, and we're perfectly happy with them, but they haven't gone through Standards and Practices yet.

Based on what's already gone through Standards and Practices, I'm assuming they're going to have some problems. And so, you've got a show like Dave and the Giant Pickle, where the whole story hinges on the song where Junior sings "He's big"--talking about Goliath--"but God's bigger." If that song goes, that's the turning point to the whole show, so this show doesn't make any sense.

And there are a couple of others where God is woven into the teaching in such a way that you can't pull God out without pulling the teaching out, and then the episode doesn't really make sense.

One thing we've noticed is the absence of the silly songs. Are those ever going to appear?

It depends on how long the main story was. We went through the library and picked 13 stories that are roughly the right length to work in a TV episode. If they're too short, we add a silly song. If they're too long, we have to cut down the story a little bit.

So, there are quite a few silly songs coming up as we get into some of the shorter stories that don't fill out a TV half-hour.

Is there anything else you'd like to add about the NBC issue?

First of all, I'm not real happy about it, either. Secondly, though, there's still a very real possibility that kids will fall in love with the creativity of "VeggieTales," and then bump into the videos in Wal-Mart and Target and take home the whole story. So, there's a silver lining to it. It's definitely not a total loss at all. And it has sparked a very interesting cultural conversation about what is and isn't appropriate to say on national television.

Do you have any hope that this conversation will spark some change?

You would have said the same thing about "Touched By An Angel"--that now all the networks are going to go looking for shows that believe in God, and they didn't. I think it's because it makes you very uncool at a dinner party in Hollywood if your number one show is something your friends consider schmaltzy, religious goop.

Even if it's making money hand-over-fist?

Hollywood is driven by money, but only to the point where you don't look cool anymore. Because cool is actually more important than rich in Hollywood.

And so, something like "Touched by an Angel" is just not cool. It's old-fashioned. It feels schmaltzy. It's not contemporary story-telling. And so, even though it was the number-one show on CBS, when another producer walked in with a show like it, he was thrown out. And he was told that "Touched by an Angel" is a fluke. It will never happen again. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is no other show like "Touched by an Angel," so now it was a fluke.

To switch gears to happier topics, tell us about your new children's book.

After the bankruptcy I was really left with about six months where I just spent almost every morning just in prayer and reading the Bible, and saying, "Okay, God, you know, what am I supposed to learn from all this? What do you want me to do now?" And what He really brought me back to was, you know, "I never told you to build the next Disney. I never asked you to build a giant company. I just wanted you to tell the stories that I lay on your heart." And so, my response was, "Well, okay. Let's do that again."

And the first thing that he laid on my heart was a little lesson that I'd noticed in my relationship with my wife and that I'd seen in other relationships, in how different we can be and how we look at each other and how we judge ourselves.

And rather than coming to my head as a three-point sermon outline, it came to my head as a story about two pigs in business suits who live right next door to each other but don't know each other's names. And it's actually based on my relationship with my wife, so it's a very personal thing. It only took about two hours to write it because it just came to my head almost complete. And I brought it home from work that day and read it to my wife and, when I was done, she had tears running down both her cheeks.

All I could think was, "Okay, God, is this how it's going to work now?" Because I had been so buried in vegetables for so many years that, if I had any non-vegetable idea, I just had to throw it away because "VeggieTales" was the only thing that would keep the lights on.

So, what are you working on now?

I've got another kids' book that comes out early next year that is just as goofy as Sidney & Norman is deep. It's called "47 Beavers On the Big Blue Sea." And it's just really a silly little storybook about how things go better when we all work together.

And then, also as I've been telling my story more and more, I've had people come up to me and say, "You need to write that down in a book." I resisted for a long time because that's not what I do. I write kids' books. But I finally realized that it was God trying to tell me something through all these people. And so, I started writing and, over the last year, it just wrote itself. And so, I've got a book coming out with Thomas Nelson called "Me, Myself and Bob," and it's really the story of the rise and fall of my Big Idea, of what does it mean when God gives you a dream, and the dream comes to life, and then it dies and falls apart in your arms, what do you do with that?

In the church we talk about our successes so much, but we don’t talk about our failures quite so often. And as I've gotten up and shared my testimony and talked about how I failed and how I messed up and how I made the work I was doing for God more important to me than my relationship with God, I’d see how it resonates with people, and God has given me a ministry that I never saw coming. So, I'm really excited to see what that book does, what God--how God uses it.

And there's a new "VeggieTales" movie at Universal. We did Jonah with Artisan because none of the major studios would give us the time of day. But, then Mel Gibson made a certain movie and, all of a sudden, the word “Christian” as a movie demographic category became much less uncool.

It's called "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie," and it's based on our pirate characters that have been pretty popular for eight or nine years now, and it's about--they're poser pirates, they're fake pirates. They don't want real adventure. They just want to look heroic, and they're called into a real pirate adventure where they face real pirates and have to decide whether they can be real heroes or not. Currently they're looking at early '08 [for releasing it].
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