All together… From the Beginning
Well… this has gotten rather interesting. From all the comments I'm reading, it's clear that not everyone has read enough of my site to know what's going on here, so I think I need to tell the story from the beginning. For everyone's benefit.
Okay… here goes…
In 1990 I created Bob and Larry. Over the next few years, my wife, my mother, my friend Mike Nawrocki and two guys named Robert Ellis and Chris Olsen helped me produce the first episode of VeggieTales. Oh yeah… my friend Kurt helped with the music. And my friend Dina kept the books. That all started in 1990.
Ten years later we had sold more than 30 million videos, and had built the largest animation studio between the coasts. VeggieTales was a big hit, helping families around the world. But I messed up. I grew my company too fast and tried to do too much all at once. Then a former distributor took us to court, claiming we had breeched a verbal agreement. They won the case, and I lost everything in bankruptcy… Bob and Larry, the songs, the videos, everything. (The verdict was overturned two years later, but I didn't get anything back. It doesn't work that way.)
So I don't own or control VeggieTales anymore. Classic Media, a secular media company in New York City, bought VeggieTales out of bankruptcy and formed a new company to make more VeggieTales videos. (The new company is called Big Idea, Inc. My old company was Big Idea Productions, Inc. Big Idea, Inc. is still a Christian company, employing many of my old friends from Big Idea Productions like Mike Nawrocki and Kurt Heinecke. I mention that Classic Media is a secular company not because I think secular companies are 'evil' or can't be trusted, but simply because the first question fans usually ask after hearing of the sale is, "Was Big Idea bought by a Christian company?" I like the guys at Classic. They're good guys.) I don't work for the new company. I still do some voices and give them notes on scripts, but I don't control anything about VeggieTales anymore. This point is somewhat important.
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.
Mind you, it wasn't a 'literacy and religion' block, it was a 'literacy and values' block. I bumped into a Scholastic executive at a conference shortly after the deal was announced and asked him if Scholastic was comfortable with the Christian nature of VeggieTales. He said, "You're giving us too much credit." Which was another way of saying, I think, "We haven't actually watched them."
At this point I had had nothing to do with the deal, other than pointing out to friends at Big Idea, Inc. that not many kids were watching the major networks anymore, and that perhaps VeggieTales could be used more strategically to help redefine and reshape the somewhat anemic world of Christian television.
Regardless, the deal was signed, and Classic approached me and asked if I could help reshape the shows for NBC. At that point Classic thought they could supply a full one-hour VeggieTales show, with lots of room for fun new stuff. I asked a very important question: "What can we say?" I knew NBC didn't want a religious show, but rather a 'values' show, so my fear was they would want all Christian references removed from VeggieTales. I didn't have much interest in signing up for that cruise. But my friends at Classic and Big Idea said, "NBC says only the Bible verse needs to be removed," and I thought, "Wow – that's pretty amazing." So we could say "God made you special and he loves you very much." On NBC! How cool would that be?
I signed up for the cruise. My new little company, Jellyfish Labs, went to work on the project. We selected 13 classic veggie stories to use, and I decided we'd set the show at Bob's house and have all sorts of goofy new friends come over to visit. Then we found out we couldn't do a full hour show, but rather just a half-hour, so a lot of the new fun stuff got thrown out. Oh, well. It could still be fun.
Then on August 14th, just two weeks before the first three episodes had to be delivered to NBC, I was sitting at a meeting about the VeggieTales movie Big Idea is producing with Universal when the head of Big Idea leaned over to me and said, "NBC says we can't say 'God made you special and he loves you very much'."
I think I turned visibly white. "How are we supposed to end the show, then?" I asked. He didn't have an answer. (A strong Christian himself, he clearly wasn't any happier than I was about the news.) My next thought was, "It's time to get off this ship." But over the next day I decided to continue. Why? Partly as a favor to my friends at Big Idea and Classic Media. Partly as a favor to the old Big Idea Productions animators who were excitedly working on the new scenes at Bob's house, and who really needed the income. Partly because I had committed to helping Big Idea, Inc. with this project, and, even though the rules had now changed, I felt I needed to keep my committment. At least NBC was still okay with the stories themselves, which mentioned God frequently. That was still pretty cool.
Four days before the first three episodes were due to be delivered to NBC, we got an email from NBC's 'standards and practices' department with a list of lines that needed to be removed from one of those shows – every line that implied God or the Bible might have an impact on how we live our lives today.
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. Apparently NBC, like Scholastic, hadn't taken the time to watch enough VeggieTales episodes to realize many of the stories hinged entirely on statements about God or the Bible. So the whole deal was done, it appears, on false premises.
At this point we told Big Idea they would need to do the story editing on their end. We had been hired to reformat the shows and create new hosting material, not recut the stories themselves. My friends and I at Jellyfish Labs focused down on finishing the new material (replacing, with heavy hearts, "God made you special" with "Thanks for coming to my house"), wanting to complete the project and move on as soon as possible. Frankly, it may be hard for Big Idea to come up with thirteen episodes that can meet NBC approval and still make sense. ("Dave and the Giant Pickle" is one in particular that absolutely falls to pieces without clear statements about God's character.)
So… for those of you new to my site: I do not own or control Big Idea, Inc. or VeggieTales. I did not make the deal with NBC. I did not decide to edit the shows. NBC did not pay me or Big Idea for the rights to VeggieTales. Classic Media and the other partners paid NBC. I do think the new stuff we came up with for Bob's house is a lot of fun. I hope you get to see it. I probably would not have done this project at all if the parameters had been clear from the beginning. I can't wait to move on to some new projects on the horizon that will help parents pass on their Christian faith to their kids in creative, new ways. I hope you get to see those, too.
I have a new kids book out called Sidney & Norman – A Tale of Two Pigs. It has God in it. I hope you get to read it sometime. I'm writing a book about the entire VeggieTales experience. It's called Me, Myself & Bob. It has lots of God in it.
I hope you have a clearer picture of the story of NBC and VeggieTales. It is not a tale I enjoy telling, and it would not make a very good children's book.
But now you know.