LDS missionaries are stars of new reality TV series

Published: Friday, Oct. 12 2012 9:39 a.m. MDT

The majority of the awards went to programming with strong educational or cultural elements such as "Beehive Stories," "The Generations Project" and coverage of the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

“We used to be measurable in one market in the Nielsen Ratings, which was Salt Lake City," Swofford continued. "We’re now measurable in 43 markets, so we know viewership is changing. … We think we really are on the right track to reaching everybody who has like-minded values.”

Sports programming played a role in BYUtv's improved ratings, but brand-new primetime shows such as "The Story Trek" and "American Ride" — each of which won a regional Emmy for its debut season — helped bolster the BYUtv commitment to an inclusive new motto, "See the Good."

As Swofford talked about what it means to BYUtv to offer unique programming like "The District," his voice radiated warm enthusiasm.

“We realized that, on any level, the real story about what Mormon missionaries do all day long is a very entertaining story,” he said. “Regardless of whether you’re a Mormon or whether you’re even interested in Mormon things, this is really compelling television. This is young people struggling to do something they think matters; this is missionaries who are having a tough time, and whose faith is challenged; and this is investigators who think that (the missionaries) are nuts. …

“We’re excited to release 'The District,' because this is unprecedented. Never before has the church allowed or even been interested in this sort of warts-and-all look at (missionary service). And whereas it looked like a pretty scary thing to try, right now the feedback and the support both from (the administration) above and from our audience have just been phenomenal.”

In the trenches

The eight missionaries in “The District” consistently demonstrate teaching techniques and personal characteristics that are fully aligned with the church’s missionary training manual, “Preach My Gospel.” This unblemished finished product is no accident: In the weeks before filming started, each missionary companionship received personalized coaching in order to hone their teaching methods so they could be “model missionaries” in the planned instructional videos.

One companion from every partnership in “The District” hailed from Utah, but the other missionary did not. The district leader, Elder Steve Bott, teamed with Elder Jon Hepworth (Idaho); Elder Mike Moreno paired with Elder Tyler Christensen (Florida); Elder Alex Murray worked with Elder Tevita Tuituu (Guam); and Sister Janet Zaldivar served with Sister Laura Voyles (Mississippi).

“The District” follows the missionaries through their routine proselytizing and teaching activities — meaning everywhere the missionaries went, a three-man film crew followed.

“I don’t think I ever fully adapted to the dynamic of the cameras,” Christensen said. “Going from private lessons with an investigator to having people just hovering over you, there’s definitely an adjustment for sure. You get more comfortable with it once you know where they were going to be standing and what they were going to be doing, so you can make sure you’re not looking into the camera.”

In addition to the daily rigors of missionary work, every episode of “The District” also documents the personal back-story of one of the missionaries. In the series debut that first aired Oct. 6, viewers learned some interesting nuggets about Christensen through interviews with his family and friends: before becoming Elder Christensen, Tyler played electric guitar in an up-and-coming rock band and, as a result, seriously vacillated about whether to go on a mission.

After the mission

Nearly three years have passed since shooting wrapped for “The District,” so all the missionaries returned home quite some time ago. Many of them are married, and some have children.

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