Monday, October 02, 2006

Genetically Modified Vegetables

While I'm real late on getting to this one, some of you may not have heard or have heard mixed messages like I have. So, if you didn't know, the evangelical cartoon/pop culture mega monster Veggie Tales has officially hit the big time and is a featured attraction on NBC Saturday morning cartoons. And how better to respond to a month of mixed up discussions and conversations than a meandering romp through the conversations, a brief discussion on the possibility of "universal religious values," and an analysis of religious corporations?

The original report posted on the website led one to believe that they were altering their product to meet the goals and expectations of NBC.

"VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer is producing the 30-minute VeggieTales TV episodes, which have been tailored to meet NBC's programming guidelines as well as national educational and informational (E/I) standards for children's programming."

This statement, plus reports on the first couple of episodes of Veggie Tales on NBC led me to believe that Veggie Tales was willfully taking the Christ out of Christmas, so to speak, and simply making shows that promoted morality and good living. For clarification, I turned to Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer's blog from August just before the show debuted. There I found out that the majority of the content was going to be from previously released Veggie Tales videos, repackaged and reformatted. Then Phil addressed the God question:

"So, Phil, will they actually let you talk about God on NBC?" Oh, good question. I figured you'd get to that at some point. The answer is… yes and no. At first we were told everything was 'okay' except the Bible verse at the end... Since we've started actually producing the episodes, though, NBC has gotten a little more restrictive... So it's gotten trickier, and we're having to do a little more editing. More than I'm comfortable with? Frankly, yes. But I had already committed to helping Big Idea with this, and I really didn't want to leave them in a tight spot. Plus, the new stuff we're coming up with is really fun, and at least some new kids will meet Bob and Larry on NBC, and maybe wander into Wal-Mart and buy a video with all the God still in. So it could be better, but overall it's not a total loss. The new stuff is really cute. You'll like it."

Ok, so it sounds like everything is going to be a hit right? Well, as the show starts airing, starts getting higher ratings, and starts having little to absolutely no references to God or the Bible, conservative groups who are always out to prove the liberal bias of the media got ahold of this story and ran with it. ran a report about how NBC was heavily editing the product to remove all mentions of God. In this report, Vischer claims that he would have rejected the NBC deal had he known all of the editing that would be required and the backlash he would receive from Veggie Tales evangelical fan base. In response to the critiques from the conservatives, Alan Wurtzle, a broadcast standards executive, started getting philosophical.

"There's a fine line of universally accepted religious values," he said. "We don't get too specific with any particular religious doctrine or any particular religious denomination."

Brent Bozell III, the head of the conservative media watchdog group Media Research Center was of course quick to pounce on all of this.

"So NBC has taken the very essence of "Veggie Tales" -- and ripped it out. It's like "Gunsmoke" without the guns, or "Monday Night Football" without the football. Think about this corporate mindset. NBC is the network that hired a squad of lawyers to argue that dropping the F-bomb on the Golden Globe Awards isn't indecent for children, but invoking God is wholly unacceptable. Or, as one e-mailing friend marveled: "So, saying 'F--- you' is protected First Amendment speech on NBC but not 'God bless you.'"

His first quote is right on, really. Veggie Tales was not interesting because of the generic religiously inspired values and ethics it promoted. It was interesting because of its way of retelling the stories and characters of the Bible. Some people found its extra-biblical content interesting too but by and large the bread and butter of Veggie Tales were the stories that have been retold for decades in Sunday School classrooms in the most creative manner possible since flannelgraph. Where Bozell is his typical conservative-ridiculous self is in faulting the private company of NBC for choosing what sort of content they wish to portray and endorse. As though NBC should desire to promote the truth of the gospel as opposed to their add rates and profit shares from ratings. Saying the f-word means more ratings and only offends the conservatives who generally don't own companies that advertise on NBC while saying "Jesus made you as a unique person and loves you very much" offends the people who run the companies who advertise on NBC.

Making this an issue of the first amendment sounds like a college freshman who wants to disregard their Composition assignment and writes about how Black Flag is the greatest band of all time instead of a character profile on Huck Finn all under the defense of the first amendment. NBC, like your college professors, are not required to let you say whatever they want because they are private entities who can put (some) restrictions on what they do and do not want expressed in their settings. Thus, the government cannot make Veggie Tales edit out references from their DVDs they wish to sell, (violation of the 1st amendment) however NBC (or Big Idea, the ownership company of Veggie Tales videos) has every right to edit whatever they want out of the product put on their network.

Bozell criticized the "corporate mindset" of NBC for editing the heart of the Veggie Tales concept out of the shows on Saturday morning yet failed to point out the very same corporate mindset that motivated the deal with NBC and Veggie Tales in the first place. In a more recent blog, Phil Vascher clarified the whole situation, making perfectly clear why the relationship was ever formed. After going bankrupt and losing the creative rights to Veggie Tales to Classic Media, (a "secular company," Phil points out, that is still made up of "good guys" that he likes) the future vision and goals of Veggie Tales were no longer Phil's own. His previous goals of helping families while making lots of money through selling lots of videos, figurines, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and pencil boxes were now secondary to the simple secular goals of Classic Media.

"Ever since buying VeggieTales, Classic Media has been looking for a way to get the shows on television, to increase awareness and, ultimately, sell more videos. (That is, after all, the business they're in.) Earlier this year, they found a way - by partnering with two other kids TV producers (Scholastic and Corus) and buying NBC's Saturday morning block. The three partners decided to create a "literacy and values" block of educational programming. Scholastic and Corus would provide the 'literacy' part, and Classic Media would provide the 'values' part, that being VeggieTales."

We inevitably return to the underlying philosophical question that I will let rest for just another moment, but Phil puts it well when he rightly indicates the potential problem for Veggie Tales as part of a "literacy and values" programming block. He contrasts the "literacy and values" to "literacy and religion" and was concerned that Veggie Tales may not be exactly what the company making the pitch to NBC was looking for.

As the complex give and take of removing God from Veggie Tales and focusing instead on values based programming unfolded, Vascher sums up the whole thing well here:

"It became perfectly clear: NBC didn't want a religious children's show. They wanted a 'values-based' children's show. At that time in history, the new Big Idea was referring to its products as "values-based" rather than "Christian" in order to reach a wider audience and avoid scaring away potential marketing partners uncomfortable with religious companies or products. So it appears NBC had signed up for the "values-based" VeggieTales product line, assuming any religious references could be easily excised...So the whole deal was done, it appears, on false premises."

Vascher ends his post with a clarification that he is not a supporter of the edits nor is he excited about the deal but he feels compelled to work on the project for various reasons. He is clear that the fault lies soely with the Big Idea group that owns the Veggie Tales line (though he does not let us know whether or not this is a "secular" or "christian" company like he did for Classic Media). He then promises us a whole new line of products that will "have God in it."

Here's what I love. Surely Vascher is working through his convictions and is upset that his baby, Veggie Tales, which he created to "help families" and spread the gospel (and make money) is now watered down. He is a true believer in the transforming power of God and the Good News and the like. And, while I haven't read the book he was advertising as containing lots of God, I assume that he saw a dual opportunity in Veggie Tales; to spread the Gospel/"help families," and make a bunch of money selling videos and all the other merchandise. Yet, he was not a good business man. And it wasn't because he was too Christian; he states that he went bankrupt by trying to expand the company too fast and too big. While it sounds like Vascher was screwed in some sort of bankruptcy filing with a distribution company, the bottom line is he lost in the difficult and cut throat world of commerce. He did not give up, though, as he frequently referenced his new, smaller company and their forthcoming projects. Yet, at the same time that he is pimping out his "christian"business ventures that are forthcoming, he is critiquing the "secular" company who's goal is to sell more videos and make more money and NBC's desire for a "values based program," not a "christian program." (His criticisms, it should be noted, are subtle and not the focus of his clarification post.)

What is the point in all of this? I guess I should focus and summarize my commentary.

1. People who are criticizing NBC for a. marketing and displaying the products that they find interesting or pleasurable or profitable, b. choosing to censor certain content (references about God from Sat. morning cartoons) and not others (Madonna's concert), or c. making decisions based on what is most profitable for them instead of what would better spread the Gospel or be truer to the Veggie Tales legacy are really just forgetting that NBC is not them, and that NBC is operating on their own agendas, and has every right to do so. You have to speak to capitalists on their own terms. If the conservatives or Vascher could show that keeping the references to God in Veggie Tales is more profitable than taking them out then perhaps they would listen. Expecting them to put a Christian show on Sat. mornings for the hell of it is absurd.

2. Christians who choose to incorporate their ministries are just as motivated by the "corporate mindset" or capitalism or whatever you want to call it as "secular" companies like NBC and Classic Entertainment. Vascher's recent blog is a perfect example. Why is he working so hard to clarify the situation? To be sure, he hopes to maintain his integrity and explain to his faithful fans (customers) why their favorite Veggie Tales shows are no longer mentioning God. At the same time, however, he is doing this because he has started a new company that has a whole line of forthcoming products coming out and Vascher does not want to offend his sales base. There are countless examples of the doomsday that comes when Christian artists, companies, etc. are viewed as "selling out" or watering down the Gospel in their product. This is economic suicide. As such, Vascher is motivated by the same things as NBC as he attempts to ensure the highest profit margin for his forthcoming products. And, of course, he is happy to be helping families and sharing his opinions about God at the same time. He probably would say this is the primary motivation and the money is secondary. He would probably be telling the truth. But let us not make this a "secular corporations" vs. "Christian artist" debate. The waters are muddy!

3. What's wrong with universal religious values? I mean, other than that as a philosophical concept they couldn't possibly exist? To be brief, unless there is some universal religion that all of our religiouss systems derive from, and unless that universal religion exists as an accessible core to all religious systems, the suggestion that there are universal religious values is difficult to sustain. Wittgenstein would offer the much much much more helpful analogy of family resemblances. For example, most religions have derived a particular value from their unique religious identity that prohibits taking the life of another human being out of rage or envy. There is not, however, a universal religious value that condemns murder, only a bunch of different particular religious values about it, all with their own unique differences and subtleties derived from their source. So, philosophically, it is silly to think about NBC corporate officials talking to Phil Vischer about how Larry the Cucumber should say "Thanks for coming to my house" instead of "Jesus loves you" as a debate about universal religious values. At the same time, however, there are good morals that are classical in their lineage and often trace back to the particular religious convictions of the Christian faith. So, to my original question here, what's wrong with making cartoons that tell people that murder is wrong, people are special and should be respected, and helping ones neighbor is a good thing to do?

From a creative perspective, I would think that thinking up new shows that promote these abstract concepts would be far less interesting than the retelling of the narratives of ancient stories about these values. And since NBC won't let Veggie Tales express universal religious values through the historical particularities of the Hebrew and Christian experiences of God in the Bible, Veggie Tales will probably be less interesting to its die hard fans who come for the Bible stories. But suggesting that such a transition made by a company whose goals are "helping families" and making money selling videos, it is a good decision and shows a commitment to morality that is unique compared to much of TV. Meanwhile, I think I'll keep taking my entertainment from the morally bankrupt TV executives as Lost returns on Wednesday and Jonny got me hooked before leaving.

Finally, a Gallup poll I would like to see: percentage of conservative Christians who critique NBC about this topic or grumble about the liberal media in general who love Deal or No Deal (promotes gambling), Trading Spaces (promotes materialism), and the family friendly 7th Heaven ("universal religious values" personified!)


At 10/02/2006 12:49 PM, Blogger Dusty said...

As an added bonus, two profs at our alma mater have made 4 segments for the upcoming shows on NBC...go read the news on the Huntington website to find it!

At 10/02/2006 2:50 PM, Blogger Jake Sikora said...

The news about the Huntington profs was my first exposure to the situation. This is great news for HU and for the new digital media program. Having animators and designers from your institution working on any network show is great for the program. While HU press releases often avoid any negativity or controversy (John Sanders), this one does address the topic of debate.

At 10/05/2006 9:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Telford Work has a helpful essay on the ethics at work within evangelicalism and as represented in the Veggie Tales series on his website:

Also, let's all forget about those trendy "virtue" or "character" ethical systems and get on with what promises to be a far more "fruitful" account of the good life: "veggie ethics." Folks, you heard it here first; my life's work will be in the development and subsequent proliferation of "veggie ethics."

Bear in mind that this sensibility--that is what it will be known as--will have nothing to do with either Phil Vischer's or evangelicalism's account of the ethical life; Jesus will be both present and central to veggie ethics. Additionally, we will eschew all reports suspecting that we are a vegan movement; reinforcing that we are a sensibility and not a movement, and citing my persisting love of meat as evidence against the primacy of meat abstinence. (Although we will look forward to a time wherein we no longer desire meat, and the sacrament of salad will be affirmed by, though not participated in, by some of the chief players in the veggie ethics sensibility.)

As I write, I am hard at work on my unavoidably groundbreaking and, as a result, rather immodest work: "After Virtue (For Real This Time!): Veggie Ethics in A Post-heroic, Post-pre-modern, Post-secular, Post-fruits-of-the-spirit, Post-apologetic Church/World/Correlationist Approach to the Church/World (Pronounced: "Correlationist Approach to the Church-Slash-World")." (Forthcoming)

Oh. By the way, this is brett.

At 10/08/2006 1:19 AM, Anonymous molly said...

this was the longest post ever.

At 10/09/2006 6:33 PM, Anonymous Zach said...

Long post … but informative, thanks.

Look like there's blame to go around here. Vascher sounds like he got too ‘ambitious’ with Veggie Tales and fell into the ‘bigger must be better’ mentality. Then once the business went south he ‘compromised’ his values in picking up a secular backer who didn’t share his vision for the series. Finally, NBC appears to be completely ‘hypocritical’ in censoring Veggie Tales but showing the Madonna crucifixion concert and other shows that distort Christianity.

Unfortunately, we share the blame too because of the fact that we are all of those things … ambitious, compromised and hypocritical. We have helped create this market where actions like this are “just business.”

But now we’re back to square one, right? What is the “So What” here? Is the compromised Veggie Tales something to support? Or is it something to frown upon … even though it’s something we helped create.


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