Sewickley man is determined to bring his Biblical message to the Super Bowl
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For nearly two decades, Jim Fitzgerald has been driven by a dream that has become his magnificent obsession -- adapting the Bible to the modern media world in order to help transform lives.
It took him 10 years to finish producing the entire New Testament on videobook, a monumental undertaking recorded on 10 DVDs running 26 hours long, which combined the biblical scriptures with narration, music and thousands of scenes shot on location in Israel and Rome.
"I was told it would be impossible to do it," said Mr. Fitzgerald, 65. "They said even if we did it, people would never want to read the Bible on TV and we would never be able to raise enough money to produce and promote it."
That's what his critics were saying back in 1994 when Mr. Fitzgerald founded his company, The WatchWord Bible, but he not only proved them wrong, he has taken the Ambridge-based business to a whole new level.
More than 500,000 copies of his original videobook production of the New Testament have been sold in VHS and DVD formats through Christian bookstores, the Internet and word of mouth. But the lion's share was sold through an infomercial produced by the Christian Broadcast Network that aired between 2004 and 2006. His company, with the help of TrueFitSolutions in Cranberry, recently created an iPhone and iPad app that allows users to take the Bible wherever they go for $12.99.
Now he's planning his biggest undertaking yet.
The Sewickley resident has launched a campaign to spread God's word to the world's largest audience. He is raising $4.5 million to pay for a 30-second commercial to advertise the WatchWord Bible during the 2013 Super Bowl.
"The Super Bowl is the one time you can speak to most of the American audience gathered in one place," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "Our goal is to get 300 sponsors at $15,000 each to reach our goal of $4.5 million to produce and air the Super Bowl commercial.
"Most people feel the Bible is too difficult to understand and they are too busy to read it," he said. "We've created a tool that makes the Bible almost effortless to read and compelling to read."
Even if he raises enough to pay for an ad, there is still a chance a TV network could reject a Super Bowl commercial that advocates a religious belief.
That is what happened this year when a Christian group called Fixed Point Foundation tried to air a commercial promoting its website for the "Look Up 3:16 Initiative." The John 3:16 passage, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life," is often considered to be the central message of the Christian faith.
Another outspoken Christian, NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, drew national attention for his anti-abortion commercial aired during the 2010 Super Bowl.
Dick Roberts, president of Downtown-based Roberts Communications, the marketing firm for WatchWord productions, said he has been communicating with NFL officials concerning the commercial. He said both the network and the NFL will have to approve the ad.
Mr. Roberts said WatchWord will have to submit a storyboard and a description of the content of the commercial by the fall for the 2013 Super Bowl. The completed commercial needs to be submitted three weeks before the event. Although NFL officials did not discuss a deadline for the payment, the fee will be between $3.5 million and $4 million and must be paid in advance.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers player Justin Hartwig is one of 24 sponsors Mr. Fitzgerald has recruited so far.
"I was impressed by the amount of time and passion he has put into this," Mr. Hartwig said. "I really believe in Jim. He really sold himself. He had this vision. He prayed about it and he knew God wanted him to do this.
"When the iPhone and iPad apps came out, he knew it was the perfect medium to share this message with the world. The timing was perfect. I gave him a significant contribution because I appreciate that he is shooting for the stars."
Stan Geier, general manager at Lamar Outdoor Advertising, said when he found out about Mr. Fitzgerald's project and his lifelong struggle to complete it through his church -- Christ Church at Grove Farm in Sewickley, where several members are among the sponsors supporting the project -- he was moved to lend his support with a $15,000 sponsorship in November.
"It's not an investment where I'm looking for a financial return," Mr. Geier said. "I'm not looking for a financial return. It's an investment in God's word. We are getting the word into as many hands as possible."
The sponsors receive no financial stake in Mr. Fitzgerald's company and receive no financial return on their investments. Their names or the names of their companies will be listed on the WatchWord Bible website for special recognition for helping with the Super Bowl ad.
While there are dozens of audio and video Bible products on the market, some of which were around prior to 1994, Mr. Fitzgerald took the concept to another level. His company built the program over a 10-year period in Sewickley and Ambridge with Microsoft technology, using the same production equipment that filmmakers used for the movie "Jurassic Park."
The WatchWord Bible displays Scriptures on the screen while a narrator reads along and thousands of scenes and dramatic reenactments play in the background. It is available in English, Japanese and Arabic.
Mr. Fitzgerald and his wife, Elizabeth, put everything on the line in 1993 when they both quit their jobs and gave up their pensions to pursue this dream. It has cost $13 million so far to produce the WatchWord Bible and run the company. Over the years, they have raised and borrowed money to make it happen, going flat broke a few times in the process.
"We got money from people who just wanted to plain help us because we were going through such a hard time," Mr. Fitzgerald said, adding that since 1993 his average income has been $16,000 a year. Allegheny County property records show he and his wife bought their three-bedroom home in Sewickley in 1989 for $30,000.
"I have not taken a salary in five years and my wife has never," he said. "Lots of people would have quit after the setbacks we had. But we never quit and we have had lots of people help."
The Super Bowl production is being done through WatchWord Productions, a for-profit business. However, Mr. Fitzgerald also runs a nonprofit organization called WatchWord Worldwide, which creates international translations of the WatchWord Bible.
Jody and Richard Clark, owners of Compression Management Services, a Cranberry-based medical supplies company, cast an early vote of support for the Super Bowl commercial with a $15,000 donation early this year.
"We, as a company, believe the gospel should be preached to all the nations and this application is absolutely essential to reaching young people today," Mrs. Clark said. "This is a way for the new generation to watch, read and learn the word.
"We are very excited about what Jim has poured his heart and his life into. We believe this is what will reach the new generation and we are excited to be a part of it."
First Published May 22, 2012 12:00 am