After first blaming time constraints as the reason certain references to God were cut from a popular children's television series, NBC on Friday acknowledged that the edits were made because the network did not want to appear to be advocating any religion.
The new statement came in the wake of mounting criticism from advocacy groups that questioned why NBC had asked the creators of "VeggieTales" to take out the references.
"NBC is committed to the positive messages and universal values of 'VeggieTales,' " the statement said. "Our goal is to reach as broad an audience as possible with these positive messages, while being careful not to advocate any one religious point of view."
Terry Pefanis, chief operating officer of Big Idea Inc., said the producers were warned in advance by NBC that a Bible verse at the end of the show would be edited out. The producers then selected shows from their library that were less overt in their Christian message, Pefanis said.
"We knew all the religious content in our shows would be sent through a filter.... So far, we feel like the shows play very strong with those edits," Pefanis said. "If they asked us to edit something that we were uncomfortable with, we would hold our ground and say we're uncomfortable with it."
But "VeggieTales" creator Phil Vischer said he feared that it would be difficult to make the series as secular as the network wanted it to be. Vischer said the editing was more extensive than expected, requiring the show's producers to take out certain episodes' references to God, such as "Remember kids, God made you special and he loves you very much."
"We have some stories that work fine but not 13 shows in a season," he said. "When the first edit notes came back, I thought, 'This is going to be difficult because the stories were going to fall apart.' This has implications for 'VeggieTales' which would have been nice to talk about in the beginning."
Vischer said trying to change the show's Christian message ran counter to the show's expressed mission.
"It's a mistake to pitch 'VeggieTales' as just values because fundamentally it's about God," said Vischer, noting that the show was slated to fit into the network's "literacy and values" time slot. "It's nothing against NBC. It's just that they want to please everyone."
So far, "VeggieTales" has been very successful for NBC in a Saturday morning time slot that has traditionally been difficult for the networks. Thanks to Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, NBC saw its biggest ratings jump last weekend in Saturday morning children's programming since 2003.
TV stations are required by the Federal Communications Commission to air three hours a week of educational programming for children. For more than a decade now, cable channels such as Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network have dominated the children's audience.
In May, NBC Universal entered into a venture with Scholastic Corp., Corus Entertainment Inc., Classic Media/Big Idea Inc. and ION Media Networks to create a Saturday morning block of programming called Qubo.
A week ago, in its second week of broadcast, Qubo averaged 402,000 children between the ages of 2 and 11. "VeggieTales" at 10 a.m. was the most watched of the Qubo shows, averaging 430,000 kids, a 16% jump from the previous weekend.
"VeggieTales" has sold more than 50 million DVDs since its founding in 1993. Last year, 60% of those videos were sold in the mass market and 40% through retailers in the Christian Booksellers Assn.
The production company has produced one feature film, "Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie," which grossed $25 million at the box office in 2003. Another film is in the works.
Separately, NBC has drawn criticism from Christian family groups after the network announced that it would air a Madonna concert in which she hangs in a mock crucifixion on a cross while wearing a crown of thorns. NBC is in discussions with the singer's representatives about editing the scene.
On Friday, the Mississippi-based American Family Assn. said 350,000 e-mails had been sent by its members to the network. The group accused NBC of having a double standard for refusing to air cartoons that Muslims found offensive while disregarding what Christians found objectionable.
The controversies speak to the complex relationship between Hollywood and religion at a time when Christians in particular are showing that they are a lucrative market for movies and TV shows.
"If we are going to be so finicky, we have to ask ourselves what values are we projecting under children's television?" said Eddie Gibbs, a professor who specializes in religion in popular culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. "In Western society, most of our values are Christian-based.... Clearly you can't do it to promote a religion against another because that would be unfair. But we do live religiously pluralistic society. You can't pretend that religion is marginal to our society."