VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer, owner of Jellyfish Labs, on strategies to reach kids today and his current projects, Jelly Telly online programming and the new "What's in the Bible?" DVD series from Tyndale House Publishers.
What's the aim of the new DVD series?
"To bring Christianity to life for kids by walking them through the entire Bible-from Genesis to Revelation. I think VeggieTales did a good job teaching individual Bible stories and Christian values. What we're trying to do now, though, is connect all those dots to show kids the big picture. Instead of teaching Christian values, we're teaching Christianity. Instead of teaching individual Bible stories, we're teaching the entire Bible. I think it's the next step after VeggieTales-sort of 'VeggieTales v2.' "
Are you nervous about how this will be received by VeggieTales fans?
"I was at first, until we started showing what we've done so far to a few Veggie fans for feedback. They loved it. They couldn't believe how much teaching we packed into half-hour episodes, or how fun it was to learn in this format. I was bracing for someone to say, 'Gee, I miss the vegetables,' and instead they couldn't wait to watch the next episode. The early response has made me a lot less nervous."
What is JellyTelly and how does this new series fit with it?
"If 'What's in the Bible?' is like a series of TV specials, JellyTelly is like the daily TV show. JellyTelly is where we can talk to kids every day-teach them memory verses, introduce them to Christian kids around the world and make lots of new friends. 'What's in the Bible?' is a very concerted effort to teach the entire Bible in 13 DVDs. JellyTelly is daily reinforcement-a lot of little lessons changing every single day. The two are really wonderfully complimentary because the same characters and values live in both places."
What has changed about children's media since you began VeggieTales?
"When I sat down to think up VeggieTales, the 'transformative' technology changing America was the VHS deck. Today the average middle-schooler has a cell phone, an iPod, a Nintendo DS, an XBox and a computer-and they're probably using them all at the same time. This is partly why we're launching JellyTelly and 'What's in the Bible?' simultaneously-because kids want to interact with their favorite stories and characters in more than one way. The same lessons can be reinforced in multiple ways."
What impact is emerging/new technology going to have on the market?
"New technologies are disrupting everything-music, publishing, movies, you name it. The ideal is that the democratization of distribution technology creates opportunities for lots of new voices to find an audience. That's the ideal anyway, and to a certain extent, it's true. But the reality is that all those 'micro-audiences' really are just that-tiny. People still like shared-media experiences, so huge crowds still assemble around mega-events like the Super Bowl, American Idol and mega-budgeted movies like Avatar and Harry Potter, so people are watching Pixar films and funny cat videos on YouTube. Everything between those extremes, though, is suffering. Many more people can be involved in media ('mommy bloggers'), but many fewer can make a living at it. For good Christian storytellers with innovative business models like the Kendrick brothers (Fireproof, Facing the Giants), these are exciting times. For Christian broadcasters hanging on to models from the 1980s, these are desperate days. With JellyTelly-and even to a certain extent, 'What's in the Bible?'-we're pioneering new production and distribution models, partly because innovating is always fun, and partly because, to be blunt, the old models don't work anymore."
What can Christian retailers do to more effectively serve parents and their children with resources?
"Retailers did a wonderful job making resources like VeggieTales available to parents. Without a doubt, Christian retailers made VeggieTales work. If anyone is failing, it's us producers for ceasing to innovate. VeggieTales success became so all-encompassing for me that there was no time to try solving new problems for parents. Rather than finding new problems to solve, our business became all about making more VeggieTales. The biggest blessing of losing VeggieTales in bankruptcy was getting my time back to think about serving parents again. JellyTelly and 'What's in the Bible?' are a direct result of asking the question: 'What do parents need to raise healthy, godly kids-today?' Retailers can obviously help get the word out to busy parents, but we're also pulling in folks like Tyndale House, Focus on the Family, Awana, Moody and others to join the cause. Sixty-five percent of our kids are walking away from church as soon as they graduate from high school. This is a crisis. We all need to work together to develop and promote solutions. If we can create the right resources, we know Christian retailers will be there to help out in a big way."
Will we ever see a VeggieTales character appear in your new projects, and if so, who would you like it to be?
"That would be a lot of fun, but it isn't up to me. If I could pick, I'd probably let Mr. Lunt run amok on JellyTelly to make Buck Denver's life a little more challenging. A cranky, decorative gourd could really spice up the Internet."
Will Phil Vischer ever create anything for grown-ups?
"Ha! That question makes me laugh because on one level, everything I've ever done has been partly for grown-ups. Starting with VeggieTales, but especially with 'What's in the Bible?,' I'm always writing with one eye on the kids down in front and another eye on the 40-year-old dad sitting on the couch. Half of adult Protestants today can't define the word grace, a fairly central concept to the Christian faith. And yet our primary means of reaching this guy-the traditional Sunday morning sermon-has been proven to be the least-effective educational method known to man. He doesn't want to be taught anything. He wants to watch the football game. But if I give him a DVD for his kids, and make it funny enough, he'll come along for the ride. It's impossible to change the direction of a family by only talking to the kids, and humor is the key to pulling a whole family together for a shared learning experience."
How has being a parent affected what you do?
"My kids want to watch the same stuff as everyone else's kids-Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, Hannah Montana and iCarly. They've got iPods and Facebook accounts. With so much media rushing at them, it became very clear that we needed to do more than just make a couple of VeggieTales videos each year. Watching my own kids interact with media pushed me toward creating the daily interaction of a JellyTelly, in addition to the focused, but less frequent specials like 'What's in the Bible?.' Watching my kids as consumers has made me a much smarter producer."