BYUtv meets TV critics, and gay question arises
Beverly Hills, Calif. • BYUtv recently met members of the Television Critics Association, and the critics came away impressed.
The Provo-based, LDS Church-owned channel presented itself and some of its programming at the TCA press tour a semiannual gathering of critics from across the United States and Canada. It was the first time BYUtv appeared before the TCA, where critics are accustomed to seeing presentations from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS, CNN, Discovery, HBO, Showtime and more. And it was the first time some of the critics were more than vaguely aware of BYUtv's existence.
It was part of BYUtv's push to enter the mainstream and get its original programming on critics' radar. And the channel has the resources to pony up for the presentation, which runs several thousand dollars an hour for the technical staff and hotel fees. (The TCA is made up of journalists and does not expect or accept money from programmers.)
"That had to be one of the most interesting sessions we've had," one critic commented after the BYUtv presentation, which included an overview of the channel and a presentation of the channel's original drama "Granite Flats."
(The 2Â½-week press tour features 150 formal sessions and innumerable other interview opportunities.)
It was also the first time most critics learned not only that BYUtv operates with state-of-the-art technology, but also that it's available in more than 50 million homes on cable and satellite systems and tens of millions more on Roku, Xbox 360, iPhone and Android apps and more.
"I'm very impressed with the technical sophistication of your network," one critic commented.
There were questions about the family-friendly nature of BYUtv programming. About what it was like to work for BYUtv. About what it was like for a soap-opera actress like Finola Hughes ("General Hospital") to work on "Granite Flats." About whether aliens will ever appear in "Granite Flats." (Answer: No.)
There were, however, a couple of bumps in the road the biggest being continuing backlash from the LDS Church's support of anti-gay marriage propositions.
BYUtv and gays • "You used 'family friendly' in your opening at least three times," one critic said to Scott Swofford, BYUtv's director of content. "Well, my family includes gay couples, some of whom are raising children. And to be honest, they're not feeling very friendly toward the Mormon church and don't feel a lot of friendship coming back. In a polarized nation, do you want them as viewers and why would they want to watch BYUtv?"
Swofford defined family-friendly as "something you'd want your children to watch â¦ whether those are children of same-sex couples or children of married couples."
He went on to point out that "family configurations in 'Granite Flats' are very nontraditional. In fact, in Season 3, Arthur loses both of his 'normal parents' " wording that drew criticism from one critic.
"I would say that the use of the term 'normal parents' is one of the reasons people might be nervous about watching BYUtv," the critic said.
"I mean a normal parent is people who love their children," Swofford responded.
Missionary tool? • Critics were curious about the role of BYUtv in the church's missionary efforts.
"I thought BYUtv was just Mormon religious programming," one said.
Swofford tried to dispel that impression, pointing to "Granite Flats," "Studio C," "American Ride," "Story Trek" and "Sports Nation."
"It's not driven in terms of content by the church nor do they have expectations for any kind of evangelization," Swofford said. "Only on Sunday do we even air religious content."
(BYUtv does air devotionals, "Music and the Spoken Word" repeats and "Discussions on the Book of Mormon" in early-morning, weekday time slots.)
Show me the money • "Where's the funding for this?" asked another critic.
"We're not ad driven," Swofford said. "The money comes from our ownership and a lot of donors who've signed on saying, 'Hey, I will support family-friendly programming if it's sophisticated enough.' "
"Is the church, LDS, a major donor?" the critic asked.
"Yes," Swofford replied, pointing out that BYU is owned by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Not Mormon-only • BYUtv sought to dispel the impression that the channel is all-Mormon, all the time. To that end, Swofford appeared with cast members from the channel's drama "Granite Flats," which is not overtly religious, let alone overtly Mormon.
"Our theme is see the good in the world," Swofford said. "Not in the Mormon world not for Mormons or by Mormons but the good in everybody's world."
He said the writers of "Granite Flats" include "a Buddhist, an Orthodox Jew, a lapsed Catholic and two Mormon kids, so you can imagine conversations in that room."
And the reaction to the "Granite Flats" clips shown to critics was generally good.
"I happened to stumble on this station, which I didn't even know existed, and the show," said one critic. "And I thought, 'Wow, what is this?' "
High-quality TV • Some critics expressed doubts about the level of production quality that BYUtv could achieve a concern "Granite Flats" director Brian McNamara shared.
"When I heard it was BYUtv, I said, 'What is this, a student film? Are we going to show up and people are going to be putting the boom mike into the frame and all that?' " he said. "But the production values are fantastic."
He compared it to working on an independent film.
"Everyone is really in it together," McNamara said. "Everyone is not only growing the project but also trying to build the brand for BYU as a place where script and dramas can exist and it's a great atmosphere."
Sense of humor • Swofford seemed to win over critics with his straightforward style and his sense of humor. And he pointed to the sketch-comedy show "Studio C" as evidence that Mormons actually like to laugh.
"The whole reason we're doing the sketch comedy piece is because, unlike the last political election, we're proving that Mormons do, in fact, have a sense of humor," Swofford said. "So it's worth it to watch sketch comedy if you learn only that."
Conservative viewers • Critics are all on their laptops throughout every session, and one took a moment to check the channel out. "I looked up the BYUtv app," she said, "and the first review says, 'I do enjoy BYU television, but I'm concerned with the content and programming choices. Nine hours of "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" on Christmas?'
"They're opposed to witches and sorcery, etc. Is it hard striking a balance between entertainment and your most conservative viewers?"
Swofford said he'd recently attended a summit about family-based, faith-based entertainment, and "We were the most liberal people in the whole room. It was full of people who said, 'Well, if you even worried about saying "damn," don't say "darn." ' And we were just going, 'You know, there has to be some level of reality that doesn't compromise our values.' "
But he acknowledged that he gets "hate mail every week" about the content of "Granite Flats" and old Disney movies like "The Ugly Dachshund," "Son of Flubber" and "That Darn Cat!"
"But our attitude is smart viewers are able to sort that out and make their own choices, and we try to give them the benefit of the doubt there," Swofford said.
Television Critics Association
The TCA represents more than 200 professional journalists who cover television for publications across the United States and Canada. It meets twice annually in the Los Angeles area for press tours, featuring actors, producers and executives from all the broadcast networks and more than 40 cable/digital networks.
Salt Lake Tribune TV critic Scott D. Pierce is the current TCA president, but he did not solicit BYUtv's participation in the Summer 2014 press tour. He facilitated BYUtv's participation after the channel pitched its participation to him.
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