Okay… we established problem #1. We Christians are failing to live out the Gospel – more from ignorance than outright rebellion, I think. So what’s the second problem that God has really laid on my heart? It goes like this…
Last year the average American kid watched 3 hours and 15 minutes of television each and every day. When we add in time spent at the computer, listening to music and playing video games, the total amount of electronic media consumed by the average American kid topped five hours – a new record. Keep in mind this is only the average, so roughly half of American kids consumed MORE than 5 hours of media per day.
Media is saturating our kids’ lives more than ever before. And the growing portability of media (watching movies on our iPods… ‘beaming’ Nickelodeon into our mini-vans via satellite) will only increase this trend. This isn’t good. But this is only half the problem.
The other half is this: After 20 years of steady increase, the production of Christian kids media is now in decline. Why? For a detailed look at the state of the Christian video biz, read my posts entitled “So you want to make your own Christian videos?” But in a nutshell, the media world has changed radically in the last 10 years, and Christian producers have failed to keep up. We have fallen off the media wagon.
Christian kids media sprang out of the Christian music biz in the late 70s, as brand-new Christian record labels realized there was a market for kids music as well. Christian bookstores were just beginning to expand beyond Bibles and church supplies, and contemporary Christian music was a huge driver of that growth. Along came Christian kids albums like Bullfrogs and Butterflies and The Music Machine (which, I believe, was the first Christian kids album to sell more than 1 million copies). When VCRs took off in the late 1980s, Christian music labels followed along with the first Christian videos for kids, leading to Focus on the Family’s ground-breaking series, McGee & Me, and then, ultimately, VeggieTales in the early 1990s.
The combination of Christian music, kids videos like McGee & Me and VeggieTales and bestselling books like the Left Behind books and The Purpose-Driven Life made the Christian bookstore market, by the mid-90s, one of the hottest corners of the retail world. Heck, Jeffrey Katzenberg even showed up at a Christian Booksellers convention in the late 90s, planning his release strategy for The Prince of Egypt. Christian bookstores were hot!
Well, that was then, this is now. As I wrote in my prior postings, Christian retailing has been in decline since about 1999. New products from well-known ‘brands’ like Max Lucado or VeggieTales still sell (though not as well as in the late 90s), but everything else has fallen off rapidly. Plus, macro-changes in consumption and distribution patterns are disrupting entire industries. The music industry is falling to pieces. Overall DVD sales declined last year for the first time ever, with kids DVDs falling off much faster and further than movies or TV series boxed sets. Much of the space that used to be dedicated to kids video in Wal-Mart is now filled with video games. Christian bookstores now have so little foot traffic that launching new kids projects at retail is nearly impossible.
The world is changing rapidly. Unfortunately, the Christian world isn’t keeping up. Producers continue to look at VeggieTales as the model, wanting to “party like it’s 1999.” But Wal-Mart only wants products that are proven “hits,” and Christian bookstores no longer have the capability of producing hits. So Max Lucado and Joel Osteen keep selling books, and Big Idea can sell at least a few more VeggieTales videos (until the kids video section at Wal-Mart disappears entirely), but everything else is either dead, or dying.
The cruel irony of all this is that more Christians than ever before have a passion to get into the film business. Kids that grew up on VeggieTales are enrolling in art schools and animation programs. Kids inspired by The Passion of the Christ are showing up at film schools. At Jellyfish, we’ve identified no fewer than 15 Christian colleges with full-time film programs. Together they will graduate 200 to 300 Christian filmmakers this year, who, collectively, have nowhere to go and nothing to do. So they send me emails, saying, “I want to do what you did… how do I start?” And I have to break it to them: “Don’t look at VeggieTales as your model. It won’t work.” And so half of them end up back at their home churches, running the Powerpoint slides during the worship service.
So here is the even crueler irony: Kids are consuming more media than ever. Kids need Christian alternatives more than ever. More Christian college students want to create Christian media than ever. But they can’t. The system is broken. We’ve got young kids with the need, and young filmmakers with the passion. But there is no economic system to make it work.
Why? Because there is no platform for Christian kids media.
“Platform? Whadya mean?”
Look at the kids music business. It’s dead. In the 90s there were multiple kids record labels, inside and outside the Christian world. Today almost all of them are gone. You can’t make any money in kids music anymore.
Except… wait… the number one album of 2007 was a kids album. (High School Musical 2.) And the number one tour in the last six months was a kids tour. (Hannah Montana.) Hmm… how did that work?
High School Musical 2 and Hanna Montana have a platform. The Disney Channel. Kids everywhere know that music and, even more importantly, have a connection with the personalities behind it, because it was all over the Disney Channel. In fact, when the #1 album isn’t a kids album from a Disney or Nickelodeon-backed artist, it is quite often an artist that was launched on American Idol. Why? Because American Idol is a massive launch platform – a place to find new music and get to know the personalities behind it. Are they always the best artists out there? Of course not. But there the ones we know about, because they have a platform.
So what is the platform for the launch of Christian kids content? Well, throughout the 80s and 90s it was the Christian bookstore market. New kids projects were launched straight to retail. But that doesn’t work anymore. So what’s the platform for Christian kids content going forward? Well, American Idol isn’t going to launch any overtly Christian singers (overlooking Carrie “Jesus-take-the-wheel” Underwood for the moment). And Disney and Nickelodeon aren’t going to launch overtly Christian properties on their networks. So how will any new Christian kids content be launched? What’s the platform?
There isn’t one.
That’s the problem. Christian kids media is dying because there is no platform for new artists – new ideas. This is problem #2.
See how they interweave? Problem #1 – we need to raise a generation of Christians who know what it means to live out the Gospel. Problem #2 – Christian kids media is dying for lack of a platform. Given that the average American kid consumes 5+ hours of media per year, the best way to raise biblical literacy and help parents pass on their Christian faith to their kids is through the media they are already consuming. BUT… without an economically-viable platform for the care and feeding of said media, it can’t be done.
So we need to build a platform.
And that is what I have been working on for the last three years. (At least in every moment I’m not in a recording booth talking like a vegetable).
It’s coming along slowly… but surely.