"Action! Adventure! Excitement! Biblical values!"
So runs the trailer for "McGee and Me," one of a growing number of Christian-oriented children's videos.
"A lot of parents are fed up with [violent] children's shows," says Stephen Stiles, executive producer of Focus On The Family Films, creator of "McGee." "We're providing an alternative."
Traditionally, "Christian children's videos" meant animated Bible stories. But in 1988, Focus On The Family realized that to attract TV-watching kids, Christian videos needed to become more contemporary. So the nonprofit organization hired Taweel-Loos & a Hollywood film studio.
The result was "McGee And Me," a "Wonder Years"-style live-action series in which a boy handles typical adolescent experiences, aided by Biblical quotes and a cartoon character named McGee.
Sold in Christian bookstores for $14.95-$19.95 apiece, the series caught on. Currently there are 12 "McGee" titles. They reportedly have sold 2.25 million copies collectively; the first episode has sold 350,000 copies, according to Doug Knox, vice president/associate publisher of Tyndale Family Video, which publishes the series.
One of the biggest fans of "McGee" is New York Post movie critic Michael Medved, host of TV's "Sneak Previews." "I've seen all of them, and they're darn good," Mr. Medved says. "The acting is solid, they are thoroughly entertaining, and the messages are never preachy.
"I'm Jewish, and with few exceptions, you don't have to be Christian to enjoy it. Only one or two episodes mention Jesus. Most of them don't; they're just general, useful life lessons. Bottom line: I would enormously prefer that my kids spend time with 'McGee and Me' than with Barney."
Buoyed by the success of "McGee," Tyndale and Focus On The Family created "Adventures in Odyssey," the cartoon adventures a boy, a dog, and a grandfatherly man who owns an ice cream parlor. "Odyssey" has seven $14.95 episodes; the most popular has sold 350,000 copies, Mr. Knox says.
" 'Odyssey' has a huge following," says Bob Elder, senior buyer for Family Bookstores, a 153-store chain. "With every release, we sell more." These videos are sold only through Christian bookstores, of which there are about 4,500 nationwide. The companies hope to eventually hit a wider market, but face some drawbacks.
"Christian bookstores work on small margins, so videos have to be priced at $14.95 to $19.95," Mr. Knox says. "We've talked to some distributors about going to mass market, but we'd have to reduce it to $9.99, and we couldn't do that without sacrificing the Christian bookstores which are our main outlet.
"The other problem is that in the mainstream video world, you're competing against a lot of high-quality product. It's very hard to get noticed -- whereas in our niche, we are the high-quality product. We always get front-of-store placement."
However, Mr. Stiles says the company would like to get broader distribution. Its first bid in that direction is "The Last Chance Detectives," a slick adventure series about a multi-ethnic group of kids who solve mysteries, with eye-catching clamshell packaging and a budget of $1 million per 45-minute episode.
The religious element is low-key and the Bible is mentioned only twice: once when a boy, Mike, recalls his father's gift of a Bible, and, later, when Mike asks his grandfather for advice after a quarrel and the grandfather offers a Biblical quote about forgiveness. The rest of the video showcases the kids' adventure.
In fact, Tyndale has made a version of "Last Chance Detectives" for schools, with the word "Bible" replaced with "book of wisdom."
"We purposely made it not overly religious," says Mr. Stiles. "We're trying to branch out of our niche and gain a broader market share."
Meanwhile, other companies have gotten into the act. Broadman & Holman, the video and publishing branch of the Baptist Sunday School Board, hired Taweel & Loos to produce "Secret Adventures." Reminiscent of the Nickelodeon show "Clarissa Explains It All,"
"Secret Adventures" features a spunky teen-age girl who speaks her mind, tackles school and social problems, and comes up with creative schemes. Each episode has a brief animated segment in which Drea and her friends become cartoon characters.
"Secret Adventures" uses big-name talent, including VisionArt, a computer animation firm that has worked on the TV shows "Lois and Clark" and "Deep Space Nine"; Emmy-winning director Peter Baldwin, known for his work on "The Wonder Years" and "Family Ties"; and Emmy-nominated writer Shelly Moore. Each 30-minute video retails for $19.99. Three volumes have come out so far, supported by T-shirts, hats and insert coupons.
Perhaps the most innovative and imaginative Christian series is "Veggie Tales," which uses sophisticated computer animation to create a 3-D world of comical vegetable characters. Aimed at preschoolers, "Veggie Tales" uses 10-minute segments, silly songs and funny stories to illustrate Biblical themes.