On a sunny October morning in San Diego, a quartet of LDS missionaries gathers in a church parking lot to talk shop and plot course. All four men are wearing short-sleeved white dress shirts, dark slacks and striped ties; each sports the same style of close-cropped haircut.
The black plastic name tags on their shirt pockets identify Elder Bott, Elder Hepworth, Elder Christensen and Elder Moreno as representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Save for the pair of palm trees lazily swaying in the Southern California breeze less than 10 feet away, this run-of-the-mill huddle of Mormon elders almost looks like it could be taking place anywhere in the world — with strong emphasis on “almost.” Because pushing up against the missionaries are two cameramen and an audio technician with a boom mic who are collectively recording every detail of the interaction.
The year is 2009 — and although the camera crewmen are invited guests here to film an instructional video, nobody has any inkling that three years from now this footage could end up in a BYUtv reality show called “The District” that chronicles three unscripted months in the lives of real Mormon missionaries.
San Diego story
In 2009, the LDS Church’s Missionary Department launched something of an ambitious undertaking, sending multiple film crews to San Diego to follow four pairs of missionaries, six days a week for nearly three months. The resulting compilation of footage — which eventually eclipsed 8,000 hours — would be parsed to create a series of training materials.
“The genesis of the whole project, if you will, was our efforts to provide more realistic training for our missionaries,” said Missionary Department media director Greg Droubay. “We did something similar in San Antonio about seven or eight years ago — just filming missionaries doing what they do, and from that we created small one- to two-minute training segments.
“We went to San Diego to do the same thing, (with) focus this time on teaching and finding. And from that we’ve created 40 or 50 training segments so far.”
BYUtv creative director Scott Swofford is the catalyst who got the ball rolling on turning that mountain of video footage into a reality TV show — in large part because before coming to BYUtv in the fall of 2010, Swofford shepherded the San Diego project as the Missionary Department’s media director. (Droubay assumed the media directorship after Swofford accepted his BYUtv position.)
Swofford’s past in the Missionary Department was helpful, especially the success of the popular “I Am a Mormon” videos he pioneered. Against that backdrop, and knowing about the San Diego footage the Missionary Department already had in hand, Swafford floated a bold idea to Droubay: Why not repurpose those thousands of hours of footage as source material for a reality TV show about the daily lives of missionaries?
The church’s Missionary Executive Committee green-lighted BYUtv’s proposal. The Missionary Department, it was decided, would produce eight episodes of an unscripted reality show for BYUtv called “The District.”
Come Jan. 1, BYUtv will mark its 13th birthday. Although the channel already reached more than 50 million U.S. households when Swofford joined BYUtv, the network only recently started approaching its current levels of industry recognition and viewership.
“Last week, we won 11 (regional) Emmys,” he said. “Eleven Emmy Awards is more than any local station has ever won at once, and more than we’ve ever won at once — we’ve been used to maybe one or two every other year. But 11 Emmys says to us that things are working."
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.
Even before the decision was made to produce “The District,” the Missionary Department was already intermittently checking in with the returned missionaries, and shooting video and photos of major milestones like marriages and births. The visual media will comprise “Eight Stories,” an exhibit at the LDS Church’s Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center that opens later this month.
Tyler Christensen returned home to Florida 18 months ago, and in February he got married. He still practices guitar and goes to concerts, but for now he isn’t playing in a band like he did before his mission.
Christensen attends BYU and has a part-time job at the church’s Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, where he often sees his “District” co-stars Alex Murray and Laura Voyles (they work in the same department). Christensen still hangs out with his former mission companion Mike Moreno, and hopes to attend medical school when he graduates in 2015.
Even though he has known for more than a year that he would be featured in a reality show — and even after previewing rough cuts of the first two episodes of “The District” several months ago — Christensen still describes the experience of seeing himself on television as “surreal.”
“Like most young men, a mission was a life-changing experience for me,” Christensen said. “Seeing some of the people I taught, and some of the interviews and other conversations and other experiences, brings back a lot of tender memories of pivotal moments in my life.
“I’m very lucky to have a good chunk of my mission on HDTV, where I can actually show my children someday my experiences in vibrant color and almost in the present moment — not just through a journal or writing, but almost as if I’m back there again.”
“The District” airs Sundays at 6:30 pm MST on BYUtv.
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at [email protected] or 801-236-6051.