Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Just what is this entertainment media obsession with pictures of Tom Cruise’s baby? Is there nothing else of interest out there in Hollywood? Actually, there is — and they’re ignoring it, proving just how disconnected the Hollywood press is from the American mainstream.

Maybe you’re familiar with the computer-animated cartoon “Veggie Tales,” a video series targeted at children ages 2 to 8, and which features moral and religious tales hosted by Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. Beginning in 1993, the series was distributed on VHS tapes, telling biblical stories like the Battle of Jericho, David and Goliath and the tale of the Good Samaritan. Each show ended with a Bible verse.

And it’s been a marketing phenomenon. Without any broadcasting or syndication on television, “Veggie Tales” has sold more than 50 million “Veggie Tales” DVDs and videotapes — primarily, but quietly, through big chain stores like Target, Wal-Mart and Family Christian Stores. As their popularity spread, so did “Veggie Tales” T-shirts, plush toys and other products.

In true Hollywood fashion, the show’s focus on young children and its cutesy vegetable stars made it a frequent target of mockery. The absolute low point came on Comedy Central’s perverse cartoon “Drawn Together,” which satirized the show by having the Larry the Cucumber character go on a murderous rampage, killing nearly all the Comedy Central cartoon’s major characters, shooting most of them bloodily in the head. Behind the killings, a laugh track howled. No one in Hollywood wondered if that might be “offensive,” let along just plain sick.

Eventually, someone in Tinseltown saw the commercial possibilities. Now, the news breaks that NBC (as well as NBC-owned Telemundo) will begin showing “Veggie Tales” cartoons on Saturday mornings for the new fall season. Maybe this isn’t Earth-shattering news. In a world of 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week cartoon programming on cable and satellite, Saturday morning at the Big Three networks is a forgotten land, and the days where children would get up and watch test patterns on Saturdays in anticipation of cartoons has long passed.

But here is what should be news. The early word from producers is that NBC has grown increasingly fierce about editing something out of “Veggie Tales” — those apparently unacceptable, insensitive references to God and the Bible.

So NBC has taken the very essence of “Veggie Tales” — and ripped it out. It’s like “Gunsmoke” without the guns, or “Monday Night Football” without the football.

Think about this corporate mindset. 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, but invoking God is wholly unacceptable. Or, as one e-mailing friend marveled: “So, saying [expletive] you’ is protected First Amendment speech on NBC but not ‘God bless you.’ ”

The cartoon’s creator, Phil Vischer, posted on his personal Web log the news of NBC’s increasing creative stranglehold. “At first we were told everything was ‘OK’ except the Bible verse at the end. Frankly, that news [never] really surprised me, because, heck, we’re talking about NBC here. [Would they allow] God on Saturday morning? It didn’t seem likely.”

But it grew worse than that edict, Mr. Vischer reported: “Since we’ve started actually producing the episodes, though, NBC has gotten a little more restrictive.” How so? He said, “We’re having to do a little more editing.” How much? So much so Mr. Vischer implied the God talk is landing on the cutting-room floor. Now, he’s merely hoping people will “maybe wander into Wal-Mart and buy a video with all the God still in.”

This is one of those moments where you understand networks like NBC are only talking an empty talk and walking an empty walk when it comes to the First Amendment, and “creative integrity,” and so on. They have told parents concerned about their smutty programs like “Will and Grace” that if they’re offended, they have a remote control as an option. The networks have spent millions insisting we have a V-chip in our TV sets. Change the channel. Block it out.

But when it comes to religious programming — that doesn’t even mention Jesus Christ — just watch the hypocrisy. Instead of telling viewers to just change the channel if they don’t like it, or put in a V-chip for Bible verses, they demand to producers that all that outdated old-time religion be shredded before broadcast.

It’s truly sad this anti-religious hypocrisy would emerge. Today, no one in network TV fears what the children are watching — unless it makes them think about God.

L. Brent Bozell III is president of the Media Research Center.

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