BYUtv has big dreams. It wants to be a household name. It wants millions of people to watch its programs.
As a first step toward a higher national profile, BYUtv joined the Television Critics Association winter press tour this month in Pasadena, Calif. It was a chance to get some press for a channel that hasn’t been a priority for TCA members.
Industry website The Wrap posed seven “burning questions” ahead of the tour — and No. 6 was, “What are you, BYUtv?” Marisa Roffman of GiveMeMyRemote.com said that “even as someone who writes about television for a living, I didn’t know much about it.”
A Feb. 13 session with the channel’s top executives, followed by interviews with the stars and producers of the upcoming series “Dwight in Shining Armor,” gave critics a better idea of what BYUtv is all about. It also reminded BYUtv what it’s up against.
Critics may not be familiar with BYUtv, but they are familiar with its owner — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And many of them have negative impressions.
Questions about the church’s stance on LGBTQ rights and an apparent lack of diversity dominated — threatening to overwhelm BYUtv’s message altogether.
TCA President Daniel Fienberg of the Hollywood Reporter tweeted, “Actual legitimate and hard questions being asked in this panel for BYUtv. ... All fair and crucial to understand what the brand is and isn’t, for better or for worse.”
Indiewire’s TV editor, Liz Shannon Miller, tweeted, “The BYUtv panels at #TCA19 might have been rougher question-wise than other panels, but to the best of my recollection none of the other networks we’ve seen so far are funded by organizations that actively don’t like LGBTQ people, so I’m okay with it.”
The channel’s execs weren’t surprised. “We know they’re going to ask about that,” said managing director Michael Dunn the day before BYUtv’s presentation.
Having participated in 57 press tours over the past 29 years, I can state without hesitation that it isn’t easy for presenters. Two network presidents who stood before the critics dozens of times told me they threw up beforehand.
Still, many critics walked away from BYUtv’s sessions thinking their questions hadn’t been entirely answered. “They didn’t seem to really know how to handle what was coming,” said Roffman.
And one of Variety’s “Five things we learned at TCA: Day 16” was “BYUtv skirts questions about inclusivity.”
‘Here’s who we are’
“The reality is, nobody knows BYUtv,” Dunn said the day before his presentation. “So I’m trying to explain. Here’s who we are. Here’s where we’ve been. And here’s what we’re trying to do.”
He walked critics through BYUtv’s history, and he pointed to BYU Broadcasting’s 100,000-square-foot broadcast facility and original shows like “Granite Flats” and “Studio C.” He raised eyebrows when he mentioned that “Studio C” has had more than 1.8 billion views on its YouTube channel, and that BYUtv has plans for 21 new shows that will roll out in 2019.
And he introduced a new logo and a new tagline — “Together.”
“We realize you can’t be all things to all people,” Dunn said, so the channel has “picked a lane”: Kids ages 8 to 15 and their parents, who can share a “co-viewing experience” with shows that are appropriate for kids and yet engaging for adults.
The critics’ shift to questions about LGBTQ issues was inevitable. Similar questions were asked five years ago during BYUtv’s only other appearance at TCA. (Full disclosure: I was president of TCA in 2015, and I encouraged BYUtv to present then. I had nothing to do with its return.)
Historical opposition by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to LGBTQ rights and gay marriage doesn’t play well in Hollywood, where many remember the church played a high-profile role in the battle for Prop 8, which banned gay marriage in 2008. (It was later overturned by the courts.)
“Would you ever have an openly LGBTQ character on one of your shows?” one reporter asked. “And would that person be accepted as normal?”
Dunn replied, “This may surprise you a little bit, but, yes, we actually have openly LGBTQ characters both in front of the camera and behind the camera. We don’t draw lines that way.”
Dunn misspoke when he said “characters.” He was referring to LGBTQ actors, producers, directors and crew members. The channel has yet to produce a show that features a gay character.
“It’s a legitimate question,” said Ian Puente, BYUtv’s director of strategy. “It is something that we continue to work within the confines of the brand that we have.”
The church’s position is that same-sex attraction is not a sin, but acting on it is.
But the execs arguably danced around the question. Dunn was sincere when he said he would “never say never,” but it came across to critics as a dodge.
It’s worth pointing out that the vast majority of TV shows aimed at 8-to-15-year-olds don’t feature gay characters; Disney’s made-in-Utah “Andi Mack” is an exception.
A lack of diversity
BYUtv showed TCA members clips filled with ethnic minorities, most from its reality shows. It seemed to be lost on the journalists that three top BYUtv executives who addressed them reflected some diversity: a white man, a white woman and a Hispanic man.
But there was no ethnic diversity on the panel for “Dwight in Shining Armor” — both of the showrunners and the three lead actors who appeared are all white.
“Our show has a really big ensemble that isn’t reflected by just the people sitting here,” executive producer and writer LeeAnn Adams said.
But the three white lead actors “are still the stars, so they’re the ones that we’re seeing in every single episode,” a critic replied.
Asked specifically if there are people of color in “Dwight,” executive producer and writer Brian Adams — who is LeeAnn’s husband — said, “It’s important for us to have a diverse cast.” LeeAnn Adams encouraged critics to watch full episodes to see that the fictional town where the show takes place “has all kinds of people in it.”
Asked point-blank if there are people of color or members of the LGBTQ community also writing for the show, LeeAnn Adams said that the only other writer who stayed with the production through Season 1 is a white male “and I don’t know his sexual orientation.”
Brian Adams said they are “100 percent open to any sort of diversity. In fact, if you know anyone, please let me know because …”
“I know plenty,” a critic interjected.
Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said it seemed like the “Dwight” showrunners “were maybe not prepared for the diversity question, because their answer was ‘watch and see’ rather than” providing specific examples, which “would have better defused that line of questioning.”
Among BYUtv’s previous scripted series, the main cast of “Granite Flats” was all white; one of three leads in “Extinct” was African-American; as was one of 10 “Studio C” cast members.
The question of religion
In a bizarre turn of events, a couple of critics suggested that BYUtv was trying to hide its ownership.
“You guys have left out a big talking point in the fact that you are co-owned by The Church of Latter-day Saints,” said one TCA member, misstating because the LDS Church is the sole owner. She had previously called the LDS Church homophobic, racist and sexist, asking BYUtv executives to reconcile controversy over those issues “with creating this network that has happiness and kindness and loving everybody.”
But if BYUtv — with the acronym for Brigham Young University (which owns and operates the channel) in its name — was trying to hide what it really is, it would become the Sunshine Channel or something.
Asked “how important the religious aspect of the Mormon church is to your programming,” Andra Duke, BYUtv’s director of content, said the “biggest misperception” about about the channel is that its programming is overtly church-oriented. She said the “vast majority of the content that we produce, that we create, that we curate, is really built around this broad nonreligious, co-viewing contingent.”
That’s true, by the way.
Duke acknowledged that the channel airs “some religious programming” early weekday mornings and on Sundays. It’s worth pointing out that Disney-owned Freeform — formerly known as the Family Channel — still gets questions about why it continues to air Pat Robertson’s “700 Club.” (That’s a contractual thing.)
When Duke pointed to an upcoming BYUtv reality show called “The Fixers,” which follows “an elite team of builders who go all over the world and engage with communities to do a life-changing project,” she was asked if the team includes missionaries. It does not.
Still, Puente’s statement that “the programming that we create for BYUtv is not a proselytizing tool in any way,” was seemingly met with skepticism.
There was also a weird, faux “gotcha” moment when the execs answered that, yes, BYUtv does have tax-exempt status. Asked where its funding comes from, Dunn pointed to the university, private donors and “corporate underwriting” that is “very much in the PBS model.” Dunn also noted BYUtv does not charge cable or satellite system for its signal.
It’s a point that might have been used to BYUtv’s advantage.
“If they just said, ‘Look, we are not ad-supported, so we don’t rely on ratings. So even if you disagree with the teachings of the LDS Church, watching this network in no way financially benefits the church,’” said Owen.
Not all bad news
Not everyone was there to do combat with BYUtv.
“Their programming is great,” said Howard Benjamin of the Interview Factory, who pointed to “Granite Flats” as a “great show that I really enjoyed. … You never have to question the programming.”
Several critics approached BYUtv execs and the “Dwight” producers and cast afterward to express support. The show follows the adventures of a teenage boy, Dwight (Sloane Morgan Siegel) who accidentally falls into an ancient chamber and awakens Princess Gretta (Caitlin Carmichael), a armor-wearing, sword-swinging heroine who has been slumbering for a thousand years.
One critic — a gay dad raising two young sons with his husband — told Brian Adams he’d screen it for his boys because it sounds like the kind of show they like.
“We know this is going to be a long process,” Dunn said. “This is a first step. We want to get the word out there about what we have.”
BYUtv is going to continue to face questions about diversity — questions it can answer by doing a better job showing it actually is diverse. CBS execs were pummeled at press tour after press tour about their lack of diversity until they added shows (like “S.W.A.T.,” “The Neighborhood” and “Magnum P.I.”) with nonwhite leads.
BYUtv also is going to face questions about LGBTQ representation. It can demonstrate it hires members of the community to work in and on its shows, but there’s no indication we’re going to see gay characters on BYUtv soon. If ever.
And that will remain a stumbling block as the channel tries to move into the mainstream.