Game changer: New vision has BYUtv expanding audience with entertainment that is values based
PROVO — Even as an explosion of new broadcast networks and channels splintered the American television market, a little university channel called BYUtv extended its reach to 60 million homes in the first decade of its existence while consistently broadcasting university devotionals, scripture roundtables and other content aimed primarily at Mormons.
But last year the network started mulling a metamorphosis. The no-turning-back tipping point came with the October hiring of Scott Swofford as BYU Broadcasting's creative director and a man with a revolutionary vision for BYUtv.
After a year of furious planning and producing under Swofford's watchful eye, BYUtv is now ready to unveil an ambitious fall schedule with 10 original series that embody the network's motto, "See the Good." And next week's rollout of the dramatically new primetime lineup is bigger than just the unveiling of new shows — it also marks the first time BYUtv is producing an entire block of original content designed with more than just Mormons in mind.
Swofford comes from a production background that includes IMAX films like "Texas: The Big Picture" (he directed) and "Roving Mars" (executive producer) as well as LDS fare such as "Legacy" (producer) and "The Testaments" (producer). About a decade ago he worked for Vineyard Productions, the Utah-based operation partly owned by former Deseret News editor Joe Cannon.
"Scott is unflappable," Cannon said. "He's a person with a sense of presence who doesn't appear to need a lot of ratification from other people. In my opinion he exudes a quiet confidence, but not arrogance.
"Speaking as someone who has been in business with him, he has an ability for doing things in a very competent way that makes you feel comfortable he is going to care for the resources he's a steward over."
The best method for reaching viewers who aren't Mormon, Swofford believes, is offering programming to consumers on their terms. Values-laden programming is more palatable when the content is compelling and the storytelling is strong.
"If you're not entertaining, you're done," he said. "Nobody tunes in to television to be edified or educated — they go to be entertained. So that's sort of the prerequisite; that if you can entertain then you're allowed to have a shot at (educating)."
As a practical example of his philosophy, Swofford points to a new show called "American Ride." The host, Stan Ellsworth, is a muscle-bound, 300-pound biker riding his custom Harley Davidson to East Coast historical sites and giving viewers "the working man's tour of America's beginnings." The foundational entertainment consists of a knowledgeable host enthusiastically dispensing information about major events in American history. The BYUtv added-value proposition is the implied belief that America's Founding Fathers acted under divine inspiration.
"Viewers get a feel that we have a great understanding of American history, and then we allude to that (belief) just enough so that no one's offended," Swofford said.
During four and a half years as director of media for the Missionary Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Swofford's most tangible accomplishment was devising and launching the "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign.
To Swofford's surprise, his vision for shifting the programming emphasis at BYUtv from Mormon-centric to all-inclusive encountered zero opposition.
"I expected some kind of resistance or some kind of change aversion like you always get when you try to yank an organization in a whole different direction," he said. "They've all been on board and supplied some of these great ideas."
The quest to create 10 new primetime shows started with more than 200 proposals. "Turning Point," a documentary-style show exploring the heroic choices everyday people make to serve others, is one of the pitches that made the final cut.
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