Scott Swofford’s line-up of programming provides vital nutrition to Utah’s production
Jan 2016 A testament to the power of content, BYUtv went from zero to the most ubiquitous channel in the U.S. in 15 years. When Derek Marquis, director of BYU Broadcasting saw an opportunity to make one of their signals, BYUtv “watchable” he recruited a known and proven talent.
The signal came into being in 2000 when the FCC required broadcast entities to have a signal dedicated to educational and community purposes. BYU Broadcasting applied for a license, got it and had to be on air 24-hours a day within the week. The station aired a speech by LDS Church leader Gordon B. Hinckley when he addressed the student body of Brigham Young University.
That speech ran on a loop 24 hours a day reaching 60 million homes. On the promise of “Keeping You Connected,” messages and events of BYU filled the on-air hours when eventually, Derek recognized a great opportunity. He reached out to Scott Swofford and Scott accepted the challenge to ultimately provide 8,760 hours of television programming per year on BYUtv. Scott says, “I was intrigued by the idea when Derek said, “Let’s change this to the way we want it to be.”
Scott knew the components of quality production having been a producer and production manager on dozens of IMAX films shot in 50 countries working with the likes of Disney, Morgan Stanley and National Geographic. Also working on feature films and commercials he later shepherded the campaign called, “I’m a Mormon,” sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to propose that Mormons come in all shapes and sizes and span the gamut of races, interests and looks.
Then, Scott was offered the blank slate of BYUtv. He and Derek, led by several national research firms, put together focus groups that intentionally excluded Mormons and those tending towards atheism. At first, the focus groups proclaimed to be honorable and watch television to be edified, ignobled and educated. However, the list of favorite shows included The Bachelor and American Horror Story. When the truth came out, it boiled down to escapism and entertainment—with a caveat that if there is enough entertainment value, a positive message will be tolerated, or even invited.
With the starting point of a universal value, “See the Good in the World,” they created programming that promised escape and entertainment as the sugar on the spoonful of medicine for the soul—A cooking show exploring exotic herbs and grains, Turning Point tells stories that illustrate the pivotal point of change in people’s lives, American Ride, a traveling history lesson from a Harley-riding, charming, bearded history teacher, Legends and The Story Trek are two other programs where inspiring stories of people’s lives come into focus. The sketch comedy show, Studio C is the most popular series and is produced in house. According to Scott, one of Studio C’s sketches hit 200 million views this year. The first three seasons of Granite Flats, BYUtv’s first scripted drama series was purchased by Netflix in 2015. Then there’s the hot topic of sports—BYU football and basketball with inside stories of athletes.
The station offers something for every demographic and is available through broad- cast in Utah, on 800 cable stations and satellite throughout the country, and for the chord cutters, BYUtv is available on more app platforms than many other networks— more than ABC, CBS—and the installs grow at an average of 7,000 per week. It also has its own app and programs can be viewed on its website, BYUtv.org.
This seems inconceivable—an overnight success on a modest to low budget. BYUtv is not for profit and development is funded by a patchwork of sources including BYU, the LDS Church, grants, local sponsors and donors.
The station is doing something that nobody else is doing, according to Scott; “Our goal is to highlight amazing stories through great story telling that are appropriate and appealing to sophisticated audiences of all ages.” Which breaks all the rules of marketing where you are only allowed ONE target audience. This tack has garnered BYUtv 51 Regional Emmys, two features in the New York Times plus other earned media and the most impossible feat—families joining together for appointment television.
The series, Granite Flats, began to attract the attention of talent agents and by the second season, the show was featuring Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), Finola Hughes (General Hospital), which led to Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) and Parker Posey (Portlandia) becoming involved. While the pay scale was below what the stars were accustomed to, they loved the experience and believed in the product. More than proof of concept that good script- ed material is rare and in demand (as well as on-demand), it proves that it doesn’t take a huge budget or a big studio to make something good.
Working with a lean and smart team, Terri Pappas and Jared Shores, the quality of BYUtv’s show line-up would not be possible without Utah’s vast professional network of production talent and crew. The station’s shows are lensed by some of the most talented cinematographers in the country, directed by sought-after, feature, commercial and television directors and supported by Utah’s renowned, seasoned crew. It’s easy to “See the Good in the World” in what BYUtv is doing. First of all, giving birth to content that invites and illustrates values and goodness in the world. Second, it feeds the production industry of Utah with regular jobs and third, it provides a training ground for the next generation of writers, directors, producers, DPs and crew.
2016 offers up season 11 and 12 of American Ride, season 7 of Studio C and a new show, Relative Race—similar to Amazing Race but in this concept, couples start out in San Francisco and have to get to New York in 10 days relying on the kindness of relatives they have never met. The producers research their respective DNA and give the couples the names and contact information. The rest is yet to come.
Not having to rely entirely on ratings, the programs get a chance to find an audience and grow organically—authentically. And the world has spoken; it quite likes the invitation to, “See the Good in the World.”