|Most people know you as the creator of VeggieTales and head of Big Idea Productions, but they may not know that you’re no longer with those projects as you once were. What happened there?|
In a nutshell, we spent five years growing like crazy, everything working and getting bigger and bigger, hiring more and more. And then we spent five years falling apart. Early success is sometimes the worse thing that can happen to you because it expands your ambition and you begin to believe what people are writing about you. So I wanted to do more and more, all for good causes. I was on God’s team, helping kids, but I also wanted to catch up with Disney and Nickelodeon. I wanted to be the Christian Walt Disney. And you keep adding on these ambitions to what was once God’s simple call, which was simply, Tell the stories I lay on your heart. And that call got lost in all this ambition brought about by success.
Weren’t you also faced with some legal challenges?
We grew so fast that we simply outgrew our revenue and found ourselves in a lawsuit in 2002. We were taken to court by a former distributor and lost the lawsuit, and it put the company into bankruptcy. Six months later, the lawsuit was overturned and thrown out, but the company had already been sold. The damage had been done. So Big Idea Productions ceased to exist at that point. That was my company. A secular media company in New York bought all the assets, the characters, the films, even the Big Idea logo, and has kept making VeggieTales videos. I’m a consultant now. They’re decent guys. It’s not like it was a hostile takeover. I’ve been helping. I still provide the voices for half the characters and give notes on scripts.
Is it odd merely consulting on something you gave birth to and nurtured for so long?
It’s actually a wonderful thing for a Christian to go through because it’s so humbling. Any pretense you had about your own ability to do great things under your own power [is gone], and you realize at the end of the day it starts and ends with God. I’ll do this as long as God wants me to with whatever resources He gives me to do it. It’s not how big it gets. It’s not about the outcome. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about obedience. Am I doing what He called me to do today? I remember asking God, "Why did you let this happen?" And He showed me that I had made it all about me. My ministry was all about me.
It’s easy to confuse success—at least as the world defines it—with God’s approval, isn’t it?
You assume that because everything is working, that means you’re on the right track. We often confuse numerical success with God’s continued thumbs up. What He showed me was that His thumbs up had little to do with numerical success and everything to do with obedience. I was miserable, killing myself trying to be the next Walt Disney when He never called me to do that in the first place. He called me to be Phil. And, we don’t have the patience to say, "Okay, God, show me who Phil is." He called Abraham and it would be 15 more years before He actually gave him the son that He promised him. And over those 15 years, He showed Abraham who Abraham was. I ignored that, and we do that so often. I’ve written that story in a book called Me, Myself and Bob.
That leads us to your latest initiative, jellytelly.com, which Focus on the Family is partnering on. What is it, who is it for and what are you hoping to accomplish?
We launched it in late 2008 as an experiment. The question was, could we use much less expensive techniques—simple animation, puppets, goofy songs—to interact with kids every day on the Internet? Could we basically use the Internet to make something akin to a 1950s kid’s TV show? We could only afford to make two VeggieTales a year, but the average kid in America will watch five hours of TV a day. So obviously, other people were influencing them much more than we were.
How did you arrive at the name JellyTelly?
My new company is called Jellyfish Labs because I realized that, when I was building Big Idea and trying to change the world and be the next Walt Disney, I was kind of acting like a big, studly barracuda who could go and do anything. But I realized that, much like a Christian, jellyfish can’t locomote. They can’t choose their own direction or decide to go from point A to point B. They have to stay in the current and trust that the current will carry them wherever they need to be to find food. As a Christian, I’m much less like a barracuda and much more like a brainless, spineless bag of goo. It’s not my job to say, "This is what I want to do for you, God, for the next 20 years. Now get out of my way and watch me go." No, all I can do is stay in the current of God’s will and trust that His will will carry me where He wants me to be. So we started Jellyfish Labs, and every day I’m reminded of that fact. Our only rule, our only long-term plan, is that we will make no long-term plans.
With that in mind, what has the Lord impressed upon you in the short term?
What He really led us to is how much kids are starting to interact with media in new ways. It’s not about VHS cassettes anymore; it’s about iPods and XBox and digital downloads and YouTube videos. Christian kids are consuming more media than ever before, but Christians are making less for kids because most of us are stuck in the mid-’90s when VeggieTales and Barney were huge, and we’re wondering why [parents] aren’t buying our VHS cassettes. So what we wanted to do was blaze a new trail: let’s plan a daily kids’ show online and just see if it works. … The wall between Internet and television is breaking down. In a few years, every TV will have an Internet port on the back and you’ll be watching this on your TV.
What’s your perspective on how the entertainment industry engages with, or even targets children? Have things changed in your opinion?
I think the biggest difference is that when Sesame Street showed up, no one knew how much money you could make on children. So there was no financial motivation at all. Children’s programming, up to that point, meant losing money while trying to raise grants, donations, foundation support. Today, kids are an industry. A huge industry. They don’t just have a kids’ show; they have a kids’ network. And not just one, but six kids’ networks. There are now 70 kids’ TV networks around because they’ve discovered how much money there is to be made from kids. They even have ways of determining what percentage of a household’s purchase decisions is influenced by the children. And it’s a lot. They advertise minivans on Nickelodeon because data showed that kids influence the purchase of minivans. So that has turned kids, unfortunately, into big business.
What about the role of parents as gatekeepers?
When kids are very young, it’s not as bad. The producers of preschool programming typically know that mom still holds the remote control, and if you do something that turns her off, she’ll change the channel and the kid will have to go along with it. Once the kids have turned six, seven, eight, they take the remote from Mom. Mom will have some guidelines, like "Don’t go there," or "No, you can’t watch MTV," but they tend to be very broad guidelines. But since the kids are picking the shows, that’s where advertisers [and] producers get very aggressive in trying to figure out what kids like. What are kid fantasies today? That leads to the fantasy being promoting in the U.S. today, which is to be a rock star [like] Hannah Montana. I want to be a star! I wanna be in Hollywood. I wanna be rich and famous. That has become our collective national obsession, and we’re selling it to kids. It’s profoundly unChristian, but it’s what our kids are watching.
What would you say to parents trying to safeguard children from some of the negative influences found in today’s entertainment?
We have three kids, 12, 14, and 19, so we don’t have little kids anymore, but technology is bringing so many choices—which is a good thing and also a bad thing. You have to jump in and learn the technology because you can use it to limit [indecent exposure]. Every TV that’s sold has a V-chip, and you can set the TV to block shows that are past a certain rating. So on every TV in our house, network television is blocked and I have the passwords. The downside is that many of us who couldn’t set the clock on our VCR can’t set the parental controls on TiVo. So we have to have our kids show us how, and then have them close their eyes while we set the password.
Published December 2009