If he builds it, will they come? Scott Swofford talks BYUtv

Published: Friday, April 5 2013 11:05 a.m. MDT

A scene from "Granite Flats."

BYU Photo

Scott Swofford made his bones producing IMAX films. Later, he pioneered the “I’m a Mormon” publicity campaign as director of media for the LDS Church’s Missionary Department. Today, Swofford not only has oversight for the programming of an entire cable channel that reaches more than 50 million homes, but as director of content for BYUtv also works as the show-runner and director for “Granite Flats” — BYUtv’s first original drama series that debuts April 7. Set in 1962, "Granite Flats" uses 12-year-old Arthur Milligan as an entry point into small-town life near a mysterious military installation in Colorado. (Think "Wonder Years" meets "X Files.")

During a break in filming for the show’s seventh episode, I recently caught up with Swofford on the set of “Granite Flats” to talk about his vision for BYUtv and the future of family-friendly television.

Jamshid Askar: What issues did you consider in deciding whether it would be prudent for BYUtv to move into the world of scripted dramas?

Scott Swofford: We did a lot of research, we did focus groups all over the country, and we realized that if you're going to make a network out of nothing, you have to catch people’s attention. We’re already doing a lot of reality — we do some great documentary stuff, we have some amazing documentary series — and those shows do capture an audience, and that's great. But to make a mark, to move into people’s consciousness in a certain way, according to all our focus groups scripted was the answer.

A great model to look at is how Netflix started with scripted with "House of Cards," and AMC who was the old movie channel forever went with "Mad Men" and started with scripted. …

Now you start talking about BYUtv and scripted, and then you've got a whole new set of issues. What can you do that's not full of overt sexuality, and doesn't have language issues? So 1962 (the year “Granite Flats” takes place) seemed like a great place for us to go back to, with a fascinating backdrop going on behind the scenes — the Cold War, and the mists of the Cold War.

When I was younger and I heard people say “family entertainment,” I used to think, “Well, family entertainment just kind of means unsophisticated stuff you put the kids in front of to keep them busy while you go do something else.” And now our thinking is, “It doesn't have to be that way — there can be parallel plot lines that interest both adults and kids.”

We realize no one's trying to do that and we are, but we think we've got a pretty good formula here working for us. The episodes keep getting better and better and the plot lines get more sophisticated — we're moving in that direction.

JA: Tell me about your decision to direct “Granite Flats.”

SS: It was something I did reluctantly; it wasn’t, “Oh great, finally my big chance to direct.” But it was really an amalgam of trying to make the scheduling work, and make all of the characters, and become the de facto show-runner.

I thought: (A) I know the material better than anybody. (B) We have to make this for a budget. We are spending between a third and a quarter of what Hollywood spends per episode, and it's got to compete and look the same, so I have to know how to work fast and do eight pages (of script) a day. And (C) if someone’s going to take the fall for this because it doesn’t work, it probably should be me. …

From climbing the Egyptian pyramids to living with a primitive tribe in the Amazon, I was the go-to guy in the IMAX world for shows that were hard to do, and that no one else had done before. And while a lot of people have trod the path of television before, no one’s really quite tried to do family-friendly, sophisticated, competitive, inexpensive television — so it’s sort of the same thing. (Laughing.)

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