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.”
‘Such an ensemble’
Scott Swofford and casting director Dori Zuckerman handpicked the actors for “Granite Flats” from casting calls in New York and Los Angeles. Annie Tedesco, who plays the female lead Beth Milligan, emerged from the L.A. auditions.
“At the callback, the people that I was working with were really good and the story was really good,” said Tedesco, an up-and-coming actress who has worked on shows like “Modern Family” and “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” “Those (audition) pieces that you’re given — ‘sides,’ they’re called — if those are good, which is sometimes very unusual, then you know that the whole script and story have got to be really good. I was impressed with my audition pieces, what was written there — they were excellent.”
While earnestly praising the entire cast for being “such an ensemble,” Swofford singled out two characters in particular as his personal favorites: Sherriff John Sanders (played by Richard Gunn) for being “the absolute archetypal, 1962 good-guy male who is searching for truth”; and Hershel Jenkins (Peter Murnkik) as the alcoholic single-father who is “a meaty character” and “the bad boy everyone loves to hate.”
“Arthur is the hook into the story, and Arthur is the every-kid who has to grow up in the face of bullies and deal with loss,” Swofford said. “But I think it’s the guy who wants the truth, and the guy who wants out of life that are probably the most central characters.”
After testing out the first two episodes of “Granite Flats” on his 8-year-old grandson and 96-year-old father, Swofford couldn't conceal his ebullient optimism that “Granite Flats” will indeed appeal to viewers young and old.
“I have to sort of get grandfather and grandson in the same swath,” he said. “Granted, that limits the topics, but it doesn’t limit the concepts. Everybody wants to be happy, everybody wants to fight against opposition, everybody wants to overcome whatever their current challenge is, everybody likes to go to a new environment — even if it’s an environment you went to 50 years ago.”
Moving forward, probably the biggest dilemma facing “Granite Flats” will be how to introduce viewers to the show. Because after accounting for production costs, there simply isn’t enough money left over for BYUtv to launch a traditional marketing campaign. Thus, “Granite Flats” will try to gain a foothold in family-friendly entertainment via word-of-mouth and social media.
“Our biggest challenge, quite honestly, is that in a typical network there would be millions of dollars put into marketing this,” said Kevin Worthen, the BYU vice president with oversight for BYUtv. “But we’re just not in a position to do that, so we’re relying on whatever other means we can get.”
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company