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The Big Idea behind VeggieTales

Phil Vischer is president and "top tomato" of Big Idea Productions, best known for the popular, computer-animated VeggieTales children’s video series. Vischer started Big Idea in 1993 in a spare bedroom in his home. Today, the family-entertainment company employs 180 and has sold more than 17 million videos promoting "Sunday morning values, Saturday morning fun." Vischer writes many of the VeggieTales stories and songs, and is the voice of a number of characters, including Bob the Tomato. He spoke recently with Ashli O’Connell, assistant editor.

Evangel: What is the purpose of Big Idea?

Vischer: Our mission is to markedly enhance the moral and spiritual fabric of our culture through creative media — to make the lessons and values of the Bible relevant to our generation. We believe that popular media (TV, movies, music, etc.), used irresponsibly, has had a profoundly negative impact on spiritual and moral health in our culture. We also believe, however, that the same media, used well, could have an equally positive impact.

Evangel: How aware are most parents about the media’s influence on their children?

Vischer: Parental awareness varies. The folks who make Sesame Street commissioned a study that found parents fall into three primary groups: protective, progressive and indifferent. Protective parents view media — and the world in general — as a dangerous influence that can rob their kids of their innocence. They try to protect their kids from these influences, screening media carefully.

Progressive parents feel that the world is full of great possibilities for their kids. They search out new, progressive media options and encourage their kids to jump in with both feet.

The group labeled "indifferent" tends not to take an active role in either guiding their kids away from or toward particular media. This is the group most likely to underestimate the impact media is having on their kids.

Many Christian parents fall into the "protective" group but will often exhibit some of the characteristics of the "progressive" parents, seeking out media to actively engage the emotional and moral development of their kids.

More about Phil Vischer

Age: 34

Home: Suburban Chicago

Education: Attended St. Paul Bible College in Minnesota

Family: Married to Lisa, the voice of Junior Asparagus. Phil and Lisa have three children.

Why vegetables? At the time Big Idea began, computer animation was new, and the characters had to be simple. "I knew the characters had to be armless, hairless and without clothes," says Phil. "I played around with candy bars, but I thought that might make moms mad."

Evangel: How can parents create a media-safe environment for their children?

Vischer: Monitor your kids’ media consumption as closely as you monitor their food consumption. What they put in their minds will affect them at least as much as what they put in their mouths. Steer them toward positive options and away from negative ones; but as often as possible, explain your reasoning. The ultimate goal is to raise a child who can make his or her own healthy media choices. A child needs to learn to discern, not simply be told what he or she can and cannot watch. I really believe that parents should keep media devices (TVs, VCRs, computers with Internet access) in public areas (living rooms or studies).

This one is a biggie: Make kids’ rooms media-free zones. No TVs. No Internet access. Giving kids freedom to view whatever they want in their own rooms is the equivalent of letting them eat, drink or smoke whatever they want in their own rooms. The goal is to send our kids into the world with the skills to make good choices. If we think they can do that at the age of 12, we’re sorely mistaken.

Evangel: What criteria do you use in selecting what television and videos your own children may watch?

Vischer: First, we look for "absence of bad." Do the characters portray behavior or promote values we wouldn’t want to see in our kids? In other words, will this show make it harder for me to raise healthy, godly kids? Then, we look for "presence of good." Is this a show our kids could actually learn from? Quite often, the best we can get from Hollywood is the "absence of bad."

We want parents to know that with anything from Big Idea, not only will there always be an "absence of bad," but we will always add in heaping spoonfuls of "presence of good."

Evangel: What can Christians do to help undo the negative effects of exposure to mainstream media?

Vischer: We absolutely need to teach our kids to think critically. If they can’t consider a statement presented by a likable character on TV or in a movie and say, "That isn’t true," they will have a very hard time living on their own in a media-drenched culture. A huge part of parenting is modeling that kind of critical thinking.

We also need to steer our kids toward positive media choices. They need to see the difference between "good" and "bad."

Evangel: What do you think about isolating kids completely from non-Christian media?

Vischer: There are several things that concern me about this tactic:

First, the purpose of parenting is to teach our kids how to make good choices, so they can eventually leave home and live successfully on their own. If they’re presented with nothing but Christian media choices growing up, we may find them unable to deal with the real world when they leave home — not unlike a kid who grows up knowing nothing but health food, then goes off to school and finds himself in the junk food aisle at the supermarket. Is he prepared to handle his new options?

My greater concern, however, is sending our kids the message that the only valid artistic or creative expression is an overtly Christian expression. Thus, if God has blessed our kids with creative talent, they will very likely feel that they are misusing their talent unless every song or story they write deals with explicit Christian themes. This dynamic, in a very real way, has greatly reduced the impact of Christian artists on our culture.

Like much of life, media isn’t necessarily a black or white affair. My family’s choices won’t necessarily look like the family down the block, or even the family next to me at church. What’s important is that I’ve established clear principles to help us make choices; that I enforce them consistently, fairly and with explanation; and that, as my kids grow, they are given more and more opportunities to apply those principles themselves.

Evangel: How has Hollywood responded to VeggieTales?

Vischer: The reactions have varied from, "This is really cool!" to "Hmm … I don’t get it." Many of the folks in the industry that we’ve spoken to love the humor and the production value, but are a bit perplexed by the references to God and the Bible. "Why would you do that? Nobody wants God in their entertainment!"

When they find out how popular VeggieTales has become, they go from perplexed to downright befuddled.

Evangel: As the popularity of VeggieTales grows, has there been pressure to compromise the Christian message?

Vischer: Oh, there was pressure almost from Day 1. In 1995, we had offers to take us into mass market stores — as long as we edited God out of the videos. We declined, which was a pretty hard call since we were having trouble meeting payroll that year.

The next year, others said we could leave God in, as long as we took the Bible verses out. Again, we declined.

It wasn’t until 1998 that we found a distributor who was willing to take VeggieTales into mass market stores as is. So we’ve gotten used to the pressure.

Overall, lots of folks would love to work with us (including major networks) if we’d just stick to warm, fuzzy life lessons. Everybody loves a good life lesson. But we don’t want to teach kids to forgive just because it makes the world a nicer place; we want to teach kids to forgive because, when they do something wrong, God is always ready to forgive them. The lesson we’re teaching is not ultimately about forgiveness; it is about God. We have walked away from many opportunities and will continue to do so, to stay true to our mission.

Evangel: Talk about your long-term plans for Big Idea Productions.

Vischer: The world is now dominated by just a handful of giant, global media companies. These companies influence values and beliefs on a global scale. Much more so than any preacher or politician.

Our vision is to build a media company that is driven not by profit motive, but rather by the desire to help people rediscover the lessons and values of the Bible. Wherever people are watching movies and TV shows, buying videos or listening to music, we want to be there offering them options that will improve their lives, not just take their money.

 

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