Slicing the Veggies

If you were a television executive, which program do you think would offend the most viewers across America?

The first is a children's show featuring digital vegetables that sing and dance and tell silly parables. Each episode ends with a Bible verse and a witty tomato's reminder that "God made you special and he loves you very much!"

The second is a prime-time special in which Madonna sings her enigmatic ballad "Live to Tell" while hanging on a disco-mirror crucifix and wearing a crown of thorns.

If you decided that it's the vegetables that are too hot to handle, then you're on the same wavelength as NBC.

Actually, both shows got early green lights -- although the latter had to surrender its Bible verses and some key God talk. The man in charge of slicing the "VeggieTales" is Phil Vischer, the heart, mind and voice behind Bob the Tomato and many other characters. He has faced a crucial question while wrestling with NBC program guidelines: How much God is too much God?

"The parameters of what we're doing have not been clearly articulated," said Vischer, who works as a consultant for Big Idea, Inc., the company he created that is now owned by Classic Media. "It's kind of like hunting for the electronic fence in your yard. You keep walking until the back of your neck starts tingling and then you know that you've hit it."

However, he discovered a crucial clue while editing the broadcast version of "Minnesota Cuke and the Search for Samson's Hairbrush."

In the script, Larry the Cucumber is convinced Samson must have gotten his extraordinary strength from his hairbrush. No, replies Bob the Tomato, the Bible says that Samson's strength came from God.

"That line was OK," said Vischer. "Where we got into trouble was the next line, where Bob says, 'And God can give us strength, too.' The NBC people said we had to take that out, so we must have crossed a line right there. ...

"What God does in the past is OK as long as it stays in the past. But if you cross that line and say that God can affect your life in the present, then that's too much. That's reaching out to the audience and that's proselytizing or something. That's bad."

The rules get tougher when children are the primary audience, he admitted. Media executives worry about programs that blur the line between "values" and "evangelism." Still, anyone who studies modern cartoons knows that producers are constantly trying to shape the beliefs of children when it comes to the environment, racism, gender, self esteem and a host of other topics.

Thus, some angry conservatives sense a double standard.

"NBC has taken the very essence of 'VeggieTales' -- and ripped it out. It's like 'Gunsmoke' without the guns, or 'Monday Night Football' without the football," argued L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center. "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. ... Or, as one e-mailing friend marveled: 'So, saying '(expletive) you' is protected First Amendment speech on NBC but not 'God bless you.' "

Also, some "VeggieTales" loyalists -- Big Idea has sold 50 million DVDs and videocassettes -- have posted notes at arguing that the grown-up believers behind the silly stories have "sold out" in the secular marketplace.

Vischer said the key is that edited "VeggieTales" episodes will be shown on television, but they will not replace products on store shelves. If children like what they see on Saturday mornings and want their own copies, they will end up watching the original versions -- with "the Bible verses and the rest of the God stuff still in there," he said.

The semi-open door at NBC, he said, is "kind of like being invited to sing at the White House. The good news is that you get to sing at the White House. The bad news is that they aren't going to let you sing all of your Christian songs because they might upset the ambassador from Saudi Arabia and some of the other foreign dignitaries.

"But it's still good, in the long run, that people at the White House get to hear your music. The goal is for them to want to hear more."