We’d Like Faith-Based Programming, Easy On God, Please

Christian families have made the “Veggie Tales” video series very popular with young children, with their ebullient mix of Biblical stories and the light, humorous touch of such characters as Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. We bought a couple of these videos for the Little Admiral, and we enjoy watching them with her, especially since the videos emphasize the message that God loves us all. The sales of the videos attracted the eye of NBC programmers, who recently signed the series’ creators to use the characters into a cartoon on the network.
However, NBC seems a little confused about what made the series popular in the first place. CNN reported last night that network executives have pressured the producers to tone down the religious nature of Veggie Tales:

Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber always had a moral message in their long-running “VeggieTales” series, a collection of animated home videos for children that encourage moral behavior based on Christian principles. But now that the vegetable stars have hit network television, they cannot speak as freely as they once did, and that has got the Parents Television Council steamed. …
Two weeks ago, NBC began airing 30-minute episodes of “VeggieTales” on Saturday mornings. The show was edited to comply with the network’s broadcast standards, said NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks.
“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,” she said.
“VeggieTales” creator Phil Vischer, who was responsible for readying episodes for network broadcast, said he didn’t know until just weeks before the shows were to begin airing that non-historical references to God and the Bible would have to be removed.

I wish I could claim surprise, but this is the level of cynicism that we’ve come to expect from the entertainment industry, as well as intellect. What rocket scientist decided to spend millions on a new show while stripping the main element of its built-in popularity out of the final product? The Veggie Tales series has its charm, but without the Biblical episodes and the mild Christian message, the series has nothing particularly singular to recommend it. The nature of their episodes does not give Bob and Larry striking individual personalities; they mostly goof at playing characters from the Biblical stories they retell, such as Jonah or Joshua.
NBC knew this when it bought the series. It also should have realized that its fans would expect NBC to allow Veggie Tales to remain in its ouevre, and one has to wonder why the network feels so threatened by a cartoon that basically makes an average Sunday School lesson a bit more fun. It doesn’t teach jihad or crusade, nor does it delve into topics like the Immaculate Conception or review the oft-misunderstood doctrine of papal infallibility. It retells stories from the Bible that rank pretty low on the controversial scale, when one considers other young-child entertainments such as Bratz Girls and the like.
The network executives who bought the rights to Veggie Tales misrepresented their intentions not just to Phil Vischer, but also to the viewers it attracted when it announced that they would air VT episodes. Those viewers expected NBC to actually air episodes in the same style and substance as Vischer’s videos. Instead, NBC has insulted those viewers by treating their faith as something shameful and attempting to transform the openly-Christian entertainment into a neutered secular cartoon. Perhaps they might want to review the tale of Saul on the road to Damascus for themselves. Vischer could make a video that explains it in small words NBC programmers can understand.

The Path To 9/11 …

… is the path to lunacy, if one keeps up with the links at Memeorandum. They’re already planning Phase II of their war on Disney and ABC after the showing of the miniseries, having failed to dislodge the network with their “vociferous and righteous public outcry”. The bloggers now refer to the show as “terror porn” and decry the fact that the producers have distributed advabce copies to conservatives — although they fail to note that the conservatives that got them are media personalities who often get advance copies for pre-release review. It’s called “publicity”, and usually broadcasters like it.
I don’t know whether the film is terrible or terrific, and unfortunately I won’t get a chance to find out. I’ll be at a benefit dinner this evening honoring a fallen police officer (see below), and I’ll be at Macalester College Monday night engaging in a much more rational debate over the Iraq war — and hopefully local CQ readers will join me there. In the meantime, I’ll just sit at ringside while the Left melts down over a TV movie and continues to obliquely threaten to shut down a broadcaster over a political disagreement. That totalitarian streak will probably provide the clearest example of political honesty over the next two days, and certainly will be the most entertaining aspect of the week.

TV Review: Inside The Twin Towers

As we approach the fifth anniversary of 9/11, television broadcasters have started airing documentaries on the attacks, focused primarily at the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. A&E and The History Channel have aired several of these shows over the last two weeks, recounting the heroism and the tragedy of the day. Most of these use footage that has not been aired for some time, as well as re-enactments of known narratives from inside the towers and computer graphics showing the structural issues that led to the collapse of both buildings. Without exception, these retrospectives have been moving and faithful to the men and women who lived and died in the attack.
Not long ago, The Discovery Channel contacted me to ask if I would preview their upcoming two-hour special on 9/11, Inside The Twin Towers. They sent me a DVD of the special, one that had no credits or introductions. That struck me as unusual, as if they had not quite put the finishing touches on the production. However, after watching the documentary, the stark and no-frills nature of the DVD seems fitting, given the uncompromising look TDC gives to the collapse of the towers.
Inside focuses on the human stories where some of the other documentaries spent more time on the physics of the collapse. (In fact, I would highly recommend The History Channel’s The World Trade Center: Rise And Fall Of An American Icon for those who want the best exporation of that topic.) In the two hours of the documentary, it seems that very little time is spent on graphical representations of the attack and its effects. It serves as it should — as an explanation of why the attack doomed so many people, and how some people managed to survive it.
Inside doesn’t fall into the trap of telling just the happy endings or the heroics alone, but focuses on the ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. One very sad tale involves a man who could not bring himself to keep moving and the two men who encountered him in the stairwell. One man stuck with him to the end and died because of it; the other left when it became apparent that time had run out. The widow of the man who gave up credits the latter with making the right decision, but the survivor tells TDC that his actions were ‘cowardly’ — a heartbreaking moment when you realize the pain this man will have for the rest of his life.
It also tells the story of the people who never had the chance to get out, those trapped above the impact zone in the North Tower. Phone records and the testimony of those contacted by people from the Windows on the World restaurant paint a portrait of victims who slowly realize that help will never come. Other survivors wonder why they didn’t try to find more people.
To be sure, some of the more miraculous stories are retold here. The “miracle of Stairwell B” gets re-enacted again, as well as the rescue of Stanley Pramnaith by Brian Davis. The heroism of the NYFD and Port Authority PD comes through clearly, as it should. Unlike the other presentations we have seen, however, Inside allows the tragedy to overcome the fleeting moments of victory, as it should in considering the horrific losses of 9/11.
TDC also does a good job in presenting real footage taken on 9/11. They show all of the tragedy, including a brief shot of the jumpers — images that the broadcast networks have embargoed since shortly after the attacks. The scenes of devastation and of devastated first responders when they experience the full scope of the loss will bring the day back as if it were yesterday, and the immediacy of the video amplifies that effect.
Inside is well worth the time, if viewers want to revisit that dark day. It’s powerful and honest, even with re-enactments, which I normally do not like. In this case, it really is the only way to tell as many of the stories that TDC manages to give us in that short time frame. Be sure to set your DVRs for The Discovery Channel on September 3rd at 9 pm ET.

What Desperate People Do When They’re Irrelevant

Keith Olbermann keeps solidifying his position as most overblown twerp on television. At a critic’s breakfast yesterday, Olbermann fired off a Nazi salute while impersonating the man who trounces him in the ratings:

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann used a Saturday morning breakfast session at the Television Critics Association press tour to fire yet another shot at Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, holding up an O’Reilly mask while raising his right arm in a Nazi salute to mock his on-air rival.
“It’s just so much fun,” said the host of Countdown with Keith Olbermann when questioned about why he pursues his on-air rivalry with O’Reilly.

I have never been an O’Reilly fan from the early days of “Inside Edition” to his current rise to the top at Fox. In my opinion, his show often displays all of the characteristics of how television makes politics unpleasant. It doesn’t get as bad as the old “Crossfire” show before Jon Stewart’s on-air ridicule rightly killed it, but the crosstalk and personal venom at times gets too tiresome. I almost never watch it unless someone I know will be appearing.
However, O’Reilly at least has talent and intelligence, even if I don’t care for his style. Olbermann has been insufferable since his days at KNBC in Los Angeles as a sportscaster. His pretentious pontificating and snarky delivery appealed to the same crowd that loves Jim Rome (before Jim Everett knocked Rome on his ass for calling him “Chrissy”), and apparently share the same intellect- and taste-free approach to television. Olbermann’s schtick was bad enough at ESPN, but since his transformation into a political reporter, viewers have finally discovered that his ego far outweighs his intellect — and have left MS-NBC in droves.
This latest stunt demonstrates once more why ESPN improved by subtraction when he left in an apparent huff. Olbermann may think that calling people Nazis makes him hip and relevant, but all it proves is that (a) Olbermann has no clue about real Nazis, (b) Olbermann doesn’t give a damn about anybody but himself, and (c) Olbermann can’t compete fairly with O’Reilly and has to resort to tasteless stunts like this to get attention.
He’s an aging frat-boy with a failing GPA, and it’s getting worse all the time. (via Polipundit)
UPDATE: More at Olbermann Watch. Be sure to read through the comments, too.
One correction: O’Reilly’s show was “Inside Edition”, not “A Current Affair”, which was its main competition. However, Olbermann was a sportscaster on KNBC, not KTLA.

Comedy Central Grows A Pair

Ten days ago, I wrote about the conundrum faced by Comedy Central. The Emmy nominations came out that week, and the South Park episode “Trapped In The Closet” got picked for Best Animated Show. Unfortunately, Comedy Central had pulled the episode from the rotation after Isaac Hayes quit the show, complaining about the insensitivity of SP creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker towards his Scientology faith. Rumor has it that Tom Cruise, who gets mercilessly lampooned in the episode, pressured Comedy Central parent Viacom to pull “Trapped”, allegedly threatening to stop promoting Mission Impossible 3.
I wondered whether Comedy Central would return “Trapped” to the rotation after receiving the honor from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Tonight, “Trapped” made its triumphant return to Comedy Central’s rotation. I’m watching it now, and it will be on again at 11 pm CT. If you haven’t yet seen the episode, be sure to tune in this evening.

Will Comedy Central Let South Park Out Of The Closet?

Ever since South Park aired its “Trapped In The Closet” episode last November, the masters at Comedy Central and its parent company Viacom have kept the Scientology-bashing entry off the air. The episode created even more controversy when Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef, quit the show in protest over the entry months after it originally appeared on Comedy Central. Now, however, the Viacom subsidiary may be forced to change its policy after the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences intervened in an unexpected manner:

One of the Emmy nominees for best animated program is the episode of “South Park” that’s said to have angered Tom Cruise and Isaac Hayes.
The episode called “Trapped in the Closet” implies that Cruise is gay and makes fun of Scientology.
Cruise’s fellow Scientologist Isaac Hayes reportedly quit because he was upset with the episode. And when it came time to rerun it, Cruise allegedly called Comedy Central and demanded that it be pulled. It was, even though Cruise’s people denied he asked for it.

I missed this story when it broke last Thursday, mostly because no one covered it in the media. Given the inroads Scientology has made in Hollywood, the fact that “Trapped” got nominated at all seems rather shocking. It faces off against episodes of The Simpsons and Family Guy as well as a couple of Cartoon Network shows. I doubt that it will win, given Hollywood politics in general and the antics in the show itself — but then again, it managed to win a nomination despite all of that.
Comedy Central now has a major decision on its hands. It doesn’t want to put “Trapped” back in the rotation — but how can it justify keeping it off the air when it received an Emmy nomination? ATAS voters will want to watch the episode in order to make their selection, and Emmy watchers will want another look at it as well. Comedy Central can expect to get renewed attention and added viewers with this recognition — and a lot of questions if they continue to embargo the nominated episode from further viewing.
Keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming schedule. I predict that “Trapped” might finally make it out of the closet.
ADDENDUM: In my opinion, Comedy Central will restore “Trapped” in the rotation. For a commercial network, they’ve shown remarkable courage in their programming overall. I’ve had my criticisms, but considering the political climate in today’s entertainment community, the fact that they even air South Park is commendable.

Three Letters For Parker And Stone

Earlier, the Media Blog at NRO confirmed that Comedy Central refused to show an image of Mohammed in the two-part episode of South Park that finished with last night’s installment. The AP report at the Washington Post provides more detail on the decision made by the Viacom unit to restrain Trey Parker and Matt Stone from using Mohammed to make its point about intimidation and free speech:

Parker and Stone were angered when told by Comedy Central several weeks ago that they could not run an image of Muhammad, according to a person close to the show who didn’t want to be identified because of the issue’s sensitivity.
The network’s decision was made over concerns for public safety, the person said.
Comedy Central said in a statement issued Thursday: “In light of recent world events, we feel we made the right decision.” Its executives would not comment further.

With this knowledge, the extent of the satire in the two-part episode becomes clear. Although the pair used Family Guy and Fox as a foil for the plot, it appears that Parker and Stone intended it as a sly shot at Comedy Central management. Unfortunately, those executives did not possess as much testicular fortitude as the fictional Fox executive in the episode.
Those who decry this as censorship are mistaken. In this case, Comedy Central owns the “printing press” and therefore have every right to decide what material they will publish. It calls their judgment and courage into question, and certainly their consistency — they didn’t have a problem depicting Jesus in any number of South Park episodes — but in the end, the decision is theirs to make. Censorship requires government action, and none came into Viacom’s decision. The problem is better cast as corporate cowardice, the extent of which appears to be growing by the week at what used to be as cutting edge a channel as possible for free cable TV.
My advice to Parker and Stone comes down to three letters: H. B. O.
The only way to really guarantee their own freedom of expression is through self-publication, of course, but the Internet would not likely produce enough revenue to keep the show going. As long as the need for significant revenue exists, either Parker and Stone will have to buy their own cable channel or partner with one that has a proven track record of courage in publishing.
HBO has that and a reputation for excellence in broadcasting as well. Their best series, The Sopranos, is coming to an end early next year, but they have had several other highly-acclaimed original series, such as Deadwood, Carnivale, Oz, Six Feet Under, and others. It would be difficult to find a topic or a taboo that at least one of these shows did not challenge, and do it well. With the nearing retirement of The Sopranos, HBO could use some buzz for its original-series offerings. Big Love may eventually fill that role, but South Park could start right at the top.
Comedy Central has proven itself too timid to allow Parker and Stone do satirize equally. CC apparently has no problem poking fun at Christians and Jews, probably because Christians and Jews don’t try to kill people for insulting them. Scientologists and radical Muslims, however, have proven that they can frighten Viacom into submission. Under those circumstances, everything published by Comedy Central becomes suspect. Parker and Stone should call Time Warner and start discussing the Sunday night time slot that Tony Soprano will soon leave vacant.

South Park Part II: Bart Simpson, George Bush, And Osama

The final episode of the Cartoon Wars satire aired tonight, and it started off by faking the audience briefly into thinking that Matt Stone and Trey Parker had satirized Comedy Channel by announcing that Part II had been pre-empted by a Terrence & Phillip episode. When the flatulent duo encountered a censored Mohammed on horseback, we knew that the game was most certainly on.
This was a worthy follow-up to last week’s hilarious and provocative episode. South Park brought in Bart Simpson as a foil for both Kyle and Cartman and continued using George Bush to score points on the media. Check out the show’s dead-on rendition of a White House press conference, complete with the gaggle accusing Bush of sneaking a previously unknown right to free speech on them.
Does Cartman succeed in stopping Family Guy from airing its Mohammed episode? You can bet that in the end, Kyle will argue for freedom and common sense, but the results will surprise you. And wait until you see what Osama and Ayman have in mind for retaliation against the US if Fox actually airs the image of Mohammed.
You may, however, have trouble seeing it through the tears your laughter will bring.
Addendum: Watch the first segment of Mind of Mencia afterwards. He does a brilliant riff on immigration and the protests from the past few weeks.
UPDATE: I’m not sure that new viewers of the show will get the censorship gag. Comedy Central pulled the “Trapped In The Closet” episode after Isaac Hayes quit the show, and rumor has it that Viacom star Tom Cruise pressured the company to force it out of the rotation. South Park has depicted Mohammed in the past, as I noted last week. The black slides were all about spanking CC, not caving to Islamists. The two-episode set targeted wimpy broadcast executives and hypersensitive viewers as well as the Islamofascist lunatics. The Anchoress gets it.
UPDATE II: Comedy Central confirmed with NRO’s Steven Spruiell that they indeed censored the South Park episode to block the depiction of Mohammed. I’m flabbergasted; I cannot comprehend how they could do that while still leaving the “Super Best Friends” episode in the rotation and a depiction of Mohammed in the opening credits. After their cave-in on “Trapped In The Closet”, I suppose I should not have been so surprised, but I really am. And very disappointed. On the plus side, we finally got Michelle to watch the show …

South Park Takes On Islamists, Cowardly Broadcast Executives, And ‘Family Guy’

Last week, when the raunchy cartoon series South Park killed off Chef after Isaac Hayes complained about the show’s religious intolerance, some CQ readers noted that Matt Stone and Trey Parker had never taken on Muslims. Actually, Mohammed made an appearance in the “Super Best Friends” episode, where Big Mo teamed up with Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Joseph Smith, and Sea Man to stop a giant stone Abraham Lincoln — by creating a giant stone John Wilkes Booth. They also skewered al-Qaeda in an episode where the boys go to Afghanistan to return a goat sent to them by four boys who received their one-dollar donation.
However, in this week’s episode, the duo take on Islamists and the cowardice of the media in confronting their intolerance. The episode begins with the town going insane and stampeding towards the community center for shelter– because Family Guy is going to depict Mohammed in their cartoon. Fox wimps out at the last moment, but that doesn’t stop Family Guy from trying again. In the first installment of a supposed two-parter, the two manage to satirize the ultrasensitive multiculturalists, the scolds of the mainstream media, and Comedy Central for pulling their “Trapped In The Closet” episode from their normal repeat cycle. I suspect that the gag will be that the second half will never air.
South Park may be raunchy and tasteless, but it has become the bravest voice for freedom and common sense in modern entertainment. If you have not yet started watching it or have refused to do so in protest of its language, please give it another shot with this season’s episodes, especially this one.
UPDATE: The Anchoress agrees, even though the last episode of last season (“Bloody Mary”) offended her enough for her to shut off the television. Too bad everyone doesn’t understand how to react when something offends you …

Uh … Chef? It’s Going … Bad

I think Isaac Hayes may regret his decision to leave the show in the manner he chose (or others chose for him). Tonight’s South Park episode has cut and pasted previous Chef dialogue to turn him into a paedophile — one brainwashed by an evil group that got its hands on him.
I think even Scientology will regret taking on Matt Stone and Trey Parker …
UPDATE: I’m pretty sure that the guys don’t want Hayes to return any time soon … but even in their revenge, they had Kyle deliver a final reminder to remember Chef for all the good times on the show — and blame the “fruity little club that scrambled his brains” for his betrayal this last week.