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(BYUtv director of content Scott Swofford Courtesy photo)
BYUtv meets TV critics, and gay question arises

Television » But TCA members come away generally impressed with LDS Church-owned channel.

By Scott D. Pierce

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Aug 21 2014 07:19 am • Last Updated Aug 21 2014 04:18 pm

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.

At a glance

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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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 2½-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?"

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Swofford defined family-friendly as "something you’d want your children to watch … 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.’ "

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