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

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

A scene from 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.

Scott Swofford (BYUtv) Scott Swofford (BYUtv)

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.)

JA: The BYUtv tagline — “See the good in the world” — how does “Granite Flats” embody that?

SS: It’s really funny, because you would think since we’re talking about special CIA programs, FBI agents poking around a small town, kids coming of age — you would think that it would be heavily drama- and action-oriented. And it is. But really, it’s also about all these people trying to make good choices — people who defend the downtrodden, people who are looking to make the best of a bad situation. In almost every act of a four-act (episode) structure, there’s a moment when a character has to make a key decision to do the right thing or face the consequences — and that’s what “see the good in the world” is about. …

I make the joke all the time that people want to eat pizza, and we want to feed them broccoli because we know broccoli’s good for them. Well, if you only feed them broccoli, nobody’s interested. So BYUtv’s job is to make broccoli pizza. If the broccoli content gets too high, the pizza’s not going to be popular. But if there’s a little bit of broccoli, and the pizza is whole-wheat crust, then you’re accomplishing something. That’s the goal.

We monitor to make sure there’s enough broccoli — to make sure it should be on BYUtv — but we make sure there’s not so much that no one’s interested in watching it, and that’s a delicate balance. There’s not a lot of help sorting out where that line lies.

JA: How do you juggle being the director of content for BYUtv, with directing a dramatic television series?

SS: When we’re not filming, then I go back and do my job (at BYUtv). When we are filming I try to clear emails on weekends, and I have a great content staff of a couple of really sharp people who help me manage the day-to-day operations there. I still watch every episode that goes on the air of all of our programs, so it’s a long weekend of watching episodes of “Turning Point” and “Studio C.”

But yeah, it’s a lot of duty and I don’t think this is sustainable. I don’t think I could keep doing this, but to get through this first season it was the right answer.

JA: While “Granite Flats” is filming, how long is a normal workday like for you?

SS: Each day is 12.5 shooting hours; I arrive about an hour early to prep and I leave about an hour after, so they end up being about 15-hour days. Each episode is eight days apiece, so we’re shooting almost six weeks to get every chunk (of four episodes) done. We’ve done two chunks of four (episodes), and it’s exhausting.

My involvement in my church job, my involvement in my family, all that stuff turns into a few texts at night. In between trying to sleep and prep the next episode on the weekend, I might go to church and come back home. That’s about it.

JA: At any given time, how are you deciding what BYUtv’s next big innovative push will be 12-24 months down the road?

SS: It’s very research-and-development oriented. I wish I could say that we actually know what we want to accomplish, but since we’re kind of in uncharted territory, at some point we just have to try things and see what happens. … It really is a lot of R&D: You take a step and you watch and evaluate, you take another step, and you keep your eye focused on the goal as you move toward what you want the product to be.

JA: Where do you envision BYUtv five years from now?

SS: I’m kind of a faithful pessimist — maybe you would call it a realist — but if I were to go off on a flight of fancy for a moment, we have some significant dramatic series running and some significant reality stuff happening that could take us into that quadrant where we get known (for), “If I want something where I can watch something with my family on a Sunday evening or a holiday weekend, I’m going to go to BYUtv.” That’s the goal.

Whether we can achieve that or not, I don’t know. But there aren’t a lot of people trying to do that — it’s a new, very niche market. I applaud Roma Downey and those guys for doing “The Bible” (miniseries) — it’s neat and fun to watch (television) heading in that direction. But at some level, you won’t find young people watching a lot of “Bible” — so for (our goal) to work, you have to find some other language that young people can communicate in. And with “Granite Flats,” we think this might be it.

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company