Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Tale of Two Veggies.

With all due respect to Emily Post, I believe polite company should discuss politics and religion. In my family once we reached a certain age it was no longer acceptable to discuss the lives of the fictional characters on a television show at the dinner table. Current events were always discussed at our dinner table, and it's hard to discuss current events with out touching on politics and religion. Not everyone in my family shares the same political or religious point of view so whoever was speaking was not exactly preaching to the choir. The same can be said about TV today. It's hard to discuss television these days with out touching on politics and religion. Recently I wrote in Never Judge a Show by it’s Pilot: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip , "My hope is that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip becomes the next great water cooler show. Unlike other water cooler shows where people just talk about what the characters did, here we can shift the topic of conversation to the issues discussed on the show." I don't think that we can afford not to have these discussions and my patience runs thin whenever people use Emily Post's advice to hide their ignorance or apathy.

Now I want to be respectful with my next comments towards those with opposing religious or political points of view. Recently I was watching the Saturday morning news on the local NBC affiliate. When the news was over the animated series Veggie Tales came on. I knew that the Veggie Tales were a series of Christian cartoons featuring talking vegetables. I was surprised to see this show on network TV. Within a few minutes I had to watch the show, I did not notice any religious message. I assumed that the show was altered to meet network standards and practices. I promptly forgot about the Veggie Tales broadcast until a few days later when I heard that the American Family Association accused NBC of anti-Christian bigotry. Stating in their AFA Action Alert that, "NBC: Bible Verses In Veggie Tales Offensive, But Not Madonna's Mockery Of The Crucifixion Of Christ". The Action Alert uses my favorite new show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to illustrate a recent pattern of anti-Christian programming on NBC. "NBC says using Bible verses or referring to God is offensive to some non-Christians. But NBC doesn't hesitate to offend Christians by showing Madonna mocking the crucifixion of Christ. Neither do not mind offending Christians in their new program Studio 60 with a segment called Crazy Christians. (Please read the review.)". The Action Alert also provided readers with a template for a letter that you can send to NBC Chairman Bob Wright.

I fail to see how this group can compare a children's Saturday morning cartoon to a yet to be aired Madonna concert that will be on during prime time. I also don't want to pass judgement on any group or individual or group with out doing research first. I started with their review of Studio 60 written by Bill Johnson, President of the American Decency Association. I did not expect this review to be totally objective but I also did not expect it to be as slanted as it was either. I also noticed that there were factual errors and some of the comments made by characters on the show were taken out of context. The part that bothered me the most was the following statement, "One of the characters is supposedly a born-again Christian – a Christian who swears regularly and writes comedy for this fictional show that mocks Christianity. She also prays before each show and is shown praying with the cast stating:“We say this prayer in the name of your son Jesus Christ, who had to have been funny to get so many people to listen to him."" I find it inappropriate to question someone’s faith. I realize that Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) is a fictional character but she is based on a real person actress Kristin Chenoweth who used to date Aaron Sorkin (Kristin Chenoweth - Celebrity News at filmsandtv.com) I am sure that the Harriet and Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) story line is greatly inspired by Sorkin’s relationship with Chenoweth. (Sault Ste. Marie Arts and Entertainment Pages on SooToday.com) As a resident of Hollywood, I know Christians like Harriet who have a sense of humor and can laugh at themselves. I think Harriet presents a more positive portrayal of Christians than Ned Flanders (The Simpsons), Bree Van De Kamp (Desperate Housewives) or Angela Martins (The Office). I do have a hunch that sometime soon (maybe November Sweeps), there will be a backlash to Crazy Christians story line.

I then researched Veggie Tales. The creator of Veggie Tales, Phil Vischer is quoted in the Action Alert but the action alert but does not mention that he lost his company in bankruptcy and no longer controls anything about Veggie Tales. The new owners Classic Media bought Veggie Tales out of bankruptcy and formed a new company to make more Veggie Tales videos called Big Idea, Inc (The old company was Big Idea Productions, Inc.). Classic Media made the deal with NBC to do values based (not religion based) children's programming. Classic hired Vischer to create new opening and closing segments for the NBC version of the show. Big Idea says on their web site BigIdea.com - News: VeggieTales & NBC, "When we were presented with the opportunity to reach a mass television audience, we knew that certain religious references would not be allowed on a children's block under current TV network guidelines. And we recognized that we were not going to change the rules of network television overnight."

I watched a Veggie Tales DVD (Larryboy and the Bad Apple). My fist thought was that the production values were really good, superior to most Christian programming I've seen. I know that some people involved in Christian programming agree with me in that in that the show quality of most Christian shows are bad while others feel that the production values should take a back seat to the message (The Latest Poll Results philcooke.com & Opening a New Channel to God - 7/29/2006 - Broadcasting & Cable). I can't help but wonder if the quality of Christian programming was better would groups like the AFA keep trying to instill Christian values on mainstream television programming especially shows with high ratings.

As for the religious content in the Veggie Tales cartoon, I thought there was less of a religious message than were in the Davey and Goliath cartoons I watched as a child. The following Saturday I watched a Veggie Tales episode on NBC and I still understand why the network made the changes that they did. I think if they aired the episode without any changes there would be complaints from parents who don't want their children exposed to this particular religious point of view. Perhaps NBC might not get as many complaints as they did from the people in the "Don't change the show camp", then again they have an organization to write their letters for them. I also think that if the network aired the show unedited they would have to open with a disclaimer, "The views expressed by these talking vegetables do not necessarily express the views of the National Broadcasting Company". Ultimately I don't think the values presented in the edited version of Veggie Tales do not loose their overall impact just because they lost their Christian brand. These values are universal and are not the exclusive domain of any one ideology.

As to the Madonna concert it is hard to comment since NBC has not decided whether to include the crucifixion scene. The Action Alert mentions that a spokeswoman for Madonna said that the singer considered the scene crucial to the performance and could withdraw the rights for NBC to televise the concert if the scene were cut. I have to ask, if NBC cuts the crucifixion scene will Madonna’s fans watch the concert? I'm sure some will and some won’t. Will AFA members watch the concert if NBC cuts the crucifixion scene? I think not, and I'm sure NBC will factor that into their decision whether or not to air the crucifixion scene.

Finally to subject of what considered offensive by broadcasting standards. Just because some material may offend you that material may not be offensive. For example Dr. Laura Schlessinger has said things that have offended people (i.e. her homophobic comments). Howard Stern says things that are offensive (sex, sexual organs, bodily functions etc). One way or another people will be offended whether NBC airs an edited or unedited version of Veggie Tales while neither version is offensive by broadcasting standards. Airing Madonna on a cross will offend and censoring Madonna on a cross will offend others. Some people are offended some by an organization calling themselves the "American" Family Association yet they represent a specific religious point of view that is not shared by all Americans. The airwaves belong to all of us. We have to learn to play nice and share. Personally I’m most offended by thing that are stupid on TV. Where’s my support group.

To quote former NBC Censor Ted Cordes, "We are broadcasters after all, That's a real term. We're not narrowcasters. It's a big country out there, with a lot of diverse tastes, and they don't seem to like extremes."
After going from 'Bonanza' to 'Queer Eye,' TV censor retires
By Los Angeles Times Feb 01, 2004


Stay Tuned


Tony Figueroa

3 comments:

Tom Nefeldt said...

Having lived in Hollywood for over 20 years, before moving back to Chicago (5 years ago), I may not be totally removed. Also having spent over 20 years in broadcasting (DJing), I have a different take on broadcast "standards" (filled with hypocracy), than listeners and viewers might have.

I can't agree more with Tony's comments.

Being an extreme left wing liberal (left of "Progressive"), I joined the AFA to see what the "other side" was up to. Their web site is full of talk of free speech and other American freedoms.

I dared to post an opinion opposing the AFA telling people to boycott The Da Vinci Code movie. I promptly received an email from the "Director" of the site, which basically told me I was full of crap, and keep it to myself. My account was then closed, and my emails asking "why" were never answered. So I guess you can figure out what my opinion is of the AFA, and it wasn't good to start with.

I'm a huge fan of Studio 60 also, and am sorry to see that it can't keep up with it's initial ratings. I hope NBC gives it more time, but it doesn't look like it. It's really a class act, but I think that it is so "inside" and personal (Sorkin's history, inside jabs at the networks and industry) that it is not understood by the masses. Not that it goes over their heads, it just doesn't fit with their daily live experiences.

Stay well,
Tom Nefeldt

James said...

Before you casually state that Vischer "lost his company to bankruptcy," you might want to take the time to read Phil Vischer's long, sad tale on how he lost Big Idea. It's at his website - http://www.philvischer.com/

He still writes episodes and voices several of the characters. And was approached specifically to create the new opening for the show. So he is most definitely involved in the creative vision of this long running series. So to say that he no "longer controls anything about Veggie Tales" isn't entirely accurate, Tony, and I'm surprised you wouldn't have found that out.

Here's Vischer's POV about it:

"As I mentioned in my prior post, I'm not at all happy with the edits. I didn't know I'd need to make them when I agreed to produce the show, and I considered dropping out when I found out just how much would need to be removed. I decided to continue primarily as a favor to Classic Media and my friends at Big Idea, who would have been in a major pickle if I had abandoned the project just a few weeks before the first air date. (We didn't find out about the need for the cuts until early August, about two weeks before delivering the first episode.) So did Classic Media or Big Idea sell out? Not really, I don't think, because the depth of the cuts came as a surprise to them as well. Apparently one department at NBC was telling them one thing, and then, once they were committed to delivering the show, another department told them something completely different. They could have pulled VeggieTales from the deal at that point and swapped some other show (like Lassie or something else from Classic's library), but they thought the exposure for Bob and Larry was worth it. Would I have made the same decision? I'm not sure. That's a tough call. When a general market distributor promised in 1994 to take VeggieTales into Wal-Mart if we would remove God from the show, I declined. The increased exposure wasn't worth the loss of the show's primary purpose - teaching kids about God. (At the end of the day VeggieTales isn't a show about 'values', it's a show about God.)

So is this any different? Yes, sort of, because the edited shows won't end up on store shelves. There won't be two different versions of each VeggieTales video - one with God, and one without. These shows will only air on NBC, Telemundo and Pax (now called "Ion"), and as soon as they're done with them, I'm hoping Big Idea will put them back the way they should be. Was it a 'sell-out' to do this deal? Ultimately you'll have to make that call."


Aaron Sorkin's anti-Christian bigotry can be read about on my blog http://www.crazy-christians.blogspot.com. Studio 60 isn't the first time Sorkin has used a whipping stick on the faithful.

And as far as NBC worrying about parents calling to complain about religious messages to their kids, I submit the tired old liberal counter argument when Christians complain about TV content - your TV has an on/off button, use it.

Anonymous said...

Considering the actual fate of most vegetables, I find it fascinating that they are used as metaphors for "christians."