Courtesy of LDS Church Missionary Department
On a sunny October morning in San Diego, a quartet of LDS missionaries gathers in a church parking lot to talk shop and plot course. All four men are wearing short-sleeved white dress shirts, dark slacks and striped ties; each sports the same style of close-cropped haircut.
The black plastic name tags on their shirt pockets identify Elder Bott, Elder Hepworth, Elder Christensen and Elder Moreno as representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Save for the pair of palm trees lazily swaying in the Southern California breeze less than 10 feet away, this run-of-the-mill huddle of Mormon elders almost looks like it could be taking place anywhere in the world — with strong emphasis on “almost.” Because pushing up against the missionaries are two cameramen and an audio technician with a boom mic who are collectively recording every detail of the interaction.
The year is 2009 — and although the camera crewmen are invited guests here to film an instructional video, nobody has any inkling that three years from now this footage could end up in a BYUtv reality show called “The District” that chronicles three unscripted months in the lives of real Mormon missionaries.
San Diego story
In 2009, the LDS Church’s Missionary Department launched something of an ambitious undertaking, sending multiple film crews to San Diego to follow four pairs of missionaries, six days a week for nearly three months. The resulting compilation of footage — which eventually eclipsed 8,000 hours — would be parsed to create a series of training materials.
“The genesis of the whole project, if you will, was our efforts to provide more realistic training for our missionaries,” said Missionary Department media director Greg Droubay. “We did something similar in San Antonio about seven or eight years ago — just filming missionaries doing what they do, and from that we created small one- to two-minute training segments.
“We went to San Diego to do the same thing, (with) focus this time on teaching and finding. And from that we’ve created 40 or 50 training segments so far.”
BYUtv creative director Scott Swofford is the catalyst who got the ball rolling on turning that mountain of video footage into a reality TV show — in large part because before coming to BYUtv in the fall of 2010, Swofford shepherded the San Diego project as the Missionary Department’s media director. (Droubay assumed the media directorship after Swofford accepted his BYUtv position.)
Swofford’s past in the Missionary Department was helpful, especially the success of the popular “I Am a Mormon” videos he pioneered. Against that backdrop, and knowing about the San Diego footage the Missionary Department already had in hand, Swafford floated a bold idea to Droubay: Why not repurpose those thousands of hours of footage as source material for a reality TV show about the daily lives of missionaries?
The church’s Missionary Executive Committee green-lighted BYUtv’s proposal. The Missionary Department, it was decided, would produce eight episodes of an unscripted reality show for BYUtv called “The District.”
Come Jan. 1, BYUtv will mark its 13th birthday. Although the channel already reached more than 50 million U.S. households when Swofford joined BYUtv, the network only recently started approaching its current levels of industry recognition and viewership.
“Last week, we won 11 (regional) Emmys,” he said. “Eleven Emmy Awards is more than any local station has ever won at once, and more than we’ve ever won at once — we’ve been used to maybe one or two every other year. But 11 Emmys says to us that things are working."
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