With families in mind, new BYUtv drama sets its sights sky-high (+trailer)

Published: Thursday, April 4 2013 6:30 a.m. MDT

A scene from "Granite Flats."

BYU photo

OREM, Utah — More television channels populate cable and satellite lineups than one person could ever watch with any regularity. Less than $30 per month, for instance, will net you upwards of 150 channels on DirecTV or Dish Network.

Yet for all that pixelated sound and fury, Scott Swofford believes there’s a dearth of high-quality television that is truly “family friendly” — the kind of content that can entertain grandson and grandfather alike, and everyone in between.

As director of content for BYUtv — a cable channel with the motto “see the good in the world” available in 50 million U.S. homes and owned by Brigham Young University — Swofford strives to bring family-friendly programming to the people who want to watch TV together with their families.

“A lot of people are paying attention to the fact that there is an underserved demographic,” said Swofford, who earned his stripes trekking to more than 50 countries in 25 eventful years of producing IMAX films. “We saw this in focus groups we did all across the country — they would say, 'I want to watch stuff that's more uplifting and less trashy.'”

Two recurring focus-group results captivated Swofford’s imagination: Values-based viewers want to be entertained in addition to feeling uplifted, and scripted dramas are the best medium for resonating with viewers’ values. However, the mere mention of “scripted drama” presented a significant financial impediment for BYUtv because, unlike the reality TV or documentaries Swofford can produce for five-figure sums, the production costs for a high-quality dramatic series typically run in the neighborhood of $2.5 million per episode.

Never one to let logistics stand in the way of a potential project, Swofford eventually gained the green light from university officials for BYUtv to make a scripted drama aimed at the whole family. He willed his vision to fruition for less than $1 million per episode by optimizing efficiency at every turn in his roles as show-runner and director. The resulting program, “Granite Flats,” is a warm and quirky period piece that debuts April 7 on BYUtv.

Mapping ‘Granite Flats’

“Granite Flats” is set in 1962 against the backdrop of the Cold War. When the show’s pilot episode opens, army nurse Beth Milligan and her 12-year-old son, Arthur, are arriving at a Colorado military installation in the middle of the night. Only two months removed from the death of Beth’s husband and Arthur’s father in a fiery plane crash, they’re looking for a fresh start.

Arthur, as portrayed by the actor Jonathan Morgan Heit, grapples with how much he misses his father. He gets in a fight during the first day at his new school when another boy taunts him about not having a dad, but becomes fast friends with a couple of loquacious classmates. Every night before bedtime, Arthur looks up at the star-lit sky and tells his dad about his day.

“The kid's trying to reconcile his loss of his father and the fact that (his dad) has gone somewhere and he doesn’t know where,” Swofford said. “Now you have a fascinating backdrop against which to talk about spiritual issues. But it's not overtly religious; it's not in any way Mormon. (BYUtv’s) whole tagline is ‘see the good in the world,' so the show becomes 'let's go see the good in this kid's world' and we follow Arthur Milligan through his world.”

As three chatty pubescent kids pedal their bikes around town trying to solve scientific mysteries the military may be trying to cover up, “Granite Flats” churns up a vibe that feels like “Wonder Years” meets “X Files.” The town’s name is a derivative of Rocky Flats, a Colorado site where the U.S. government built nuclear weapons from 1952-92. The concept for “Granite Flats” emerged from a 20-minute film by BYU student James Shore titled “Heaven Under a Table.”

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