SALT LAKE CITY — Just as the “Granite Flats” season three finale appeared to be tying up loose ends and coming to a close, a new character entered the picture and delivered this cliffhanger of a sentence: “There is much work to be done. We are not finished with Granite Flats.”
“Granite Flats,” BYUtv’s first scripted drama, premiered six years ago on April 7, 2013. By the time season three rolled around, the show had captured national interest — so much so that Netflix struck a deal with BYUtv to run all three seasons beginning May 15, 2015. The show ran on Netflix for three years.
But before the Netflix deal, “Granite Flats” — a Cold War-era show centered on three kids solving mysteries in the small town of Granite Flats, Colorado — had caught the attention of national media such as the New York Times, Business Insider and Variety, and featured big-name actors including Christopher Lloyd, Parker Posey and Cary Elwes.
Which is why it came as a shock to the show’s head writer, John Christian Plummer, when on June 25, 2015 — just over a month after Netflix began streaming the show — BYUtv announced that, contrary to the show’s season three ending, it was indeed finished with “Granite Flats.”
“To call it counterintuitive would be a gross understatement. I found it and I still find it to be baffling, perplexing and unreasonable,” Plummer recently told the Deseret News. “From the point of view of the network … the goal of the show was to move the needle outside of the … built-in audience and also to inspire the built-in audience. Yes we did move the needle, yes we did grow the audience and yes we did get respect and recognition, but you want to keep doing that. You don’t want to walk away from that.”
According to Michael Dunn,BYU Broadcasting’s managing director since April 2017, several factors went into the decision — not made lightly — to end the show.
“I do know that after three years, you look at a lot of things: You look at the cost of production, you look at the size of the audience, and although we’re a noncommercial station, you just have to make, unfortunately, some really tough judgment calls. … And I think the consensus was … we’d given (the show) its very best shot, (and it was) now time to sort of move on and try something else.”
But not everyone moved on. About five months after BYUtv canceled “Granite Flats,” Plummer and Scott Swofford, who was then the director of content for BYU Broadcasting, spearheaded a project that, if approved, would keep the mysterious characters and world of “Granite Flats” very much alive.
A ‘Granite Flats’ spinoff
The way Swofford saw it, creating a “Granite Flats” spinoff would be a gift for fans who were left with a cliffhanger.
“I absolutely feel the pain of all the fans; I was right (there) with them,” said Swofford, who was the director and executive producer of “Granite Flats.” “I knew that we’d made people invest emotional energy in these characters and we were taking it away from them, and I hated that.”
According to Swofford, BYUtv funded the pilot for a spinoff series called “Web of Spies” — a show that would pick up 10 years from where “Granite Flats” left off. The 50-minute pilot episode, filmed in Utah in 2017, resurrects the “Granite Flats” world through the character Timmy Sanders. The episode, which Plummer released to the Deseret News, shows a newlywed Timmy living and working in Washington, D.C., as a CIA analyst during the Richard Nixon administration. Characters Arthur Milligan and Madeline Andrews — Timmy’s love interest in “Granite Flats” — remain in the small Colorado town. Throughout the episode, it’s clear something has caused a rift between the tight bond the three friends and amateur detectives once shared.
With “Web of Spies” kicking the storyline a decade down the road, different actors replace the younger actors who played Timmy, Arthur and Madeline. But Swofford said most of the show’s remaining actors, including “Back to the Future” star Lloyd, were on board with returning for a spinoff and make appearances in the pilot episode.
According to Swofford, BYUtv had originally envisioned Lloyd’s role as Professor Hargraves — the three kids’ Shakespeare-loving English teacher — for John Lithgow. But Swofford was grateful for Lloyd’s enthusiasm to take on the role and continue that role in “Web of Spies,” even though it meant taking a serious pay cut. But as Swofford tells it, deepening his voice to give his best Lloyd impression, the veteran actor was satisfied as long as he could sport a mustache and wear a bow tie.
“We paid him well (during ‘Granite Flats’), but we didn’t pay him what he could make anywhere else,” Swofford said, adding that Lloyd could easily make more at a Comic Con event. “So I (asked him), ‘Why would you do this?’ and he said, ‘I just believe in this material. I believe in what you’re trying to do.’”
BYUtv greenlighted a “Web of Spies” pilot, but as the series’ writer, Plummer went far beyond the first episode. He wrote an entire season.
“I wrote all 10 episodes … all just because that’s how much I love the show, that’s how much I love those characters,” Plummer said. “But also it was the characters that were motivating me because they just were talking to me and they just wanted these stories to be told, and so I couldn’t help myself.”
That made it even harder for Plummer, who was driving along U.S. Route 101 in California when Swofford gave him the news: BYUtv wouldn’t be moving forward with “Web of Spies.” It was a real deja vu moment for him.
“Fool me twice, shame on me, right?,” he asked.
Canceling ‘Granite Flats’
Plummer may have been shocked when BYUtv canceled “Granite Flats,” but as a longtime writer and producer, he isn’t oblivious; he knows TV networks have to make tough decisions.
“It’s OK that (‘Granite Flats’) ended and it’s OK that that happened. I mean, look, it’s show biz, that stuff happens all the time,” he said, adding that the popular HBO show “Deadwood” was also canceled after three seasons. “I comfort myself in thinking, ‘Well, if (‘Deadwood’ creator) David Milch can go through this, then I’m OK. I’m in good company.’”
In addition to “Deadwood,” other big shows that met an early demise include the now iconic NBC show “Freaks and Geeks” — which the network canceled after only 12 of the 18 episodes aired — and cult favorite “Arrested Development,” which originally aired on Fox for three seasons before Netflix released a fourth season nearly seven years later.
“(And) here we are now, 10 years later (and) they’re finally making the ‘Deadwood’ movie,” Plummer said. “I honestly wish that we could do that with (‘Granite Flats’). I think it deserves it and I think there’s an audience for it — I think there’s a huge audience for it.”
According to Dunn, “Granite Flats” was “pioneering programming” that substantially expanded BYUtv’s audience throughout its three-season run. The New York Times reported that going into the third season, the show had an audience of about 500,000 households per episode — a stark contrast to the 10,000 viewers the network’s previous top-rated show, “Love of Quilting,” attracted.
“(‘Granite Flats’) was such a gigantic step for the network to take,” Dunn said. “Scott (Swofford) is such an amazing, creative genius to have done that, to have recognized the value of what ‘Granite Flats’ would do for BYUtv. … It definitely was something that caught the attention of TV critics. Viewers, I think, were surprised — and in a good way — by BYUtv doing a show like this. … It was a shot across the bow to say, ‘Hey, BYUtv is here and we’re real and we can do world-class drama.’ And that’s what they did with ‘Granite Flats.’”
At the same time, Dunn said BYUtv began to see a dip in viewership as “Granite Flats” continued.
“From our limited audience data, ‘Granite Flats’ did really, really well as it debuted. I think over the course of those three years it stayed steady, but we also watched it decline just a little bit,” he said. “It definitely accomplished its purpose but maybe didn’t have the staying power, which in all fairness, it’s really tough to maintain that for any TV series unless you capture lightning in a bottle like with 'M*A*S*H.' … It’s difficult to do."
And as with any network, there’s always budgetary issues. According to Swofford, during the first year “Granite Flats” ran, the show used around 80 percent of BYUtv’s operating budget, a percentage that decreased for the remaining two seasons as BYUtv's budget increased. The New York Timesreported that each episode of “Granite Flats” cost about $800,000 — still a far cry from “Game of Thrones” standards, where episodes from season eight, which premiered April 14, cost $15 million each, Variety reported. In that light, BYUtv choosing to shift gears in order to produce more original content is straightforward enough for Plummer.
“I understand that. That does make sense,” Plummer said. “But even in that case, I’d say, ‘OK, then go on hiatus for a year.’ I think that would’ve been fine.”
For Utah actor Scott Christopher, who played the military hospital patient Frank Quincy in “Granite Flats,” being a part of the show was never about the money.
“It wasn’t really even about putting food on the table — I had other things in my life that do that, because when you’re an actor in a show like this in Utah, knowing there’s a limited budget, you know you’re not going to really live off of it,” he said. “So for me it was more, ‘Hey, the clock is ticking on my career, and I can be in a show that gets some … exposure and attention, working with the likes of Christopher Lloyd and Cary Elwes and Parker Posey.’ Those are the things that made me go, ‘Please give my character more to do.’”
“Granite Flats” consumed a large portion of BYUtv’s comparatively limited budget, but from Swofford’s perspective, it was an investment worth making.
“(Canceling ‘Granite Flats’) was a decision I just sort of bowed my head and said yes to. I think in fairness, there were a lot of voices weighing in at that point,” said Swofford, who now works as president for Radiant Studios, which is part of Deseret Management Corporation, owner of the Deseret News. “If you get an allocated budget each year, should you be spending a significant amount on a scripted drama? And I had one idea and other leadership people had other ideas.”
A new direction for BYUtv
Swofford sought to answer one main question when he joined BYU Broadcasting in 2010 as director of content: What would it take to make BYUtv “watchable”?
At this time, the network, which formed in 2000, predominantly covered BYU sports and events for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Swofford said. In his mind, the one thing that would put BYUtv on the map was a scripted drama.
“I knew that to get credibility you had to do scripted stuff,” said Swofford, who was with BYU Broadcasting for about five and a half years. “AMC was the old movie channel and they did ‘Mad Men,’ and all of a sudden they were a player in the industry. So I said, ‘If we want to make BYUtv a player in the industry, we have to do scripted drama.’”
But even then, BYUtv knew such an endeavor would come with a high price tag. So in the meantime, the network began producing smaller-scale shows including “American Ride,” “The Song That Changed My Life” and “Studio C.” But still, the impetus of scripted drama lingered in Swofford’s mind. So when he found potential in BYU media arts student James Shores’ film project — a screenplay titled “Heaven Under a Table” — Swofford had the idea to expand that story’s concept into a drama series, and soon “Granite Flats” was born.
And now, although “Granite Flats” fans can still watch the show on byutv.org, BYUtv once again is undergoing a programming transformation — a move Dunn said also contributed to the network’s decision to end “Granite Flats” and not move forward with the spinoff “Web of Spies.”
“It’s a family, co-viewing audience that we’re really targeting, (really) going after. We sort of (have) this very audacious belief that there still is a place in this world for families to sit down and watch television together, and this hearkens back to the heyday of television when families would gather around and watch 'The Wonderful World of Disney,'” Dunn said. “It allowed families to enjoy entertainment together. … We want to create (content where) the humor or the script isn’t over the heads of the kids but it’s not too juvenile for the parents — everybody gets something out of it. We think that’s a very unique opportunity in television and that’s what we are pursuing full bore right now.”
While Dunn said “Granite Flats” is family friendly in the sense that it’s free of objectionable language and sexual content, the fact that the series doesn’t shy away from the suspicious mood of the Cold War-era and its accompanying theme of espionage makes it less suitable for the co-viewing audience BYUtv is currently striving to reach. In March, the network premiered “Dwight in Shining Armor” — a quirky adventure-comedy that puts a modern-day spin on the “Sleeping Beauty” fairy tale. According to Dunn, the new show so far has proven to be a better fit for the network’s intended audience.
“I think with the move towards (co-viewing), while ‘Granite Flats’ is great … we just sort of felt that it didn’t marry up real well with the kind of direction we were going,” he said. “ We still think it’s great for family viewing and that’s why it’s still on our website, but we just think there are maybe some better options that could pull families (together) a little bit stronger.”
At the same time, Dunn recognizes that without “Granite Flats,” BYUtv moving in this direction would have never been possible.
“We’re able to do so many scripted and unscripted series because of the new ground that ‘Granite Flats’ plowed for us,” he said. “So we really look at it as a landmark series that has allowed us to be where we are today.”
For Swofford, who spearheaded “Granite Flats,” “Web of Spies” and also worked on BYUtv’s short-lived sci-fi series “Extinct,” only time will tell if the co-viewing direction BYUtv is headed will pay off.
“This new direction for them may be exactly what they should be doing, it’s just not exactly what I should be doing,” he said. “I got very invested in (‘Granite Flats’ and ‘Web of Spies’) and I probably shouldn’t have because things change. I get that. I do think the key to making a dent in the world is to tell stories like that. … I think scripted drama is what gets people’s attention.”
The future of ‘Granite Flats’
So is BYUtv finished with “Granite Flats"? As the network continues to move full steam ahead in a different direction, the window of opportunity for that mysterious world to come back to life gets narrower and narrower. But according to Dunn, BYUtv still holds the rights to the spinoff “Web of Spies.”
“Who knows? Maybe (we) could reconsider. But for right now with where we’re going, again probably just feeling like it’s not a really good fit,” he said. “I’m kind of a ‘never say never’ guy because I’ve just seen too many things change, but I would say right now with what we’re committed to, (‘Web of Spies’) probably will not get made.”
But not all hope is lost for “Granite Flats” fans. The Writer’s Guild of America West contract states that a company generally holds the exclusive right for a period of four years from the delivery of the original writer’s material. According to Plummer, he delivered the original draft of “Web of Spies” to BYUtv on Dec. 11, 2015. That would mean later this year, both Plummer and BYUtv would share a nonexclusive right to produce “Web of Spies.” But after the four-year period, Plummer would also be able to gain exclusivity of the material, meaning rights to the show would revert back to him and he could possibly take “Web of Spies” elsewhere.
“Me having the rights doesn’t really mean much. Producing a TV show is a costly enterprise that involves lots of people,” he said. “To me, the most sensible thing to do would be for BYUtv to … do a sequel, (since) that’s where (‘Granite Flats’) originated. … They have those rights and I wish they would exercise them.”
The way “Granite Flats” actor Christopher sees it, for actors and fans alike, reviving the enigmatic world would help solve a different mystery that has been going on since the show's cancellation on June 25, 2015.
“Every single day people will ask me, ‘What happened to ‘Granite Flats?'" said Christopher, who appears briefly in the pilot for the spinoff set 10 years later. “Hopefully we’ll find a home. If we have to sit it out for a period of time, great, but let’s get it back out there because everyone still wants to do it. … It would be sad if it really were 10 years later, but with the clock ticking, who knows? It might end up actually being 10 years.”