There’s been a huge change behind the scenes of this year’s “Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir” TV special … although viewers probably won’t notice anything different.
Sure, there’s a new guest star — operatic tenor Rolando Villazón performs and narrates in the program, filmed last year — and the lineup of songs is new. But there’s also a new presenter for PBS’ most popular Christmas special this year.
Since the special began airing annually on PBS in 2004, KUED-Channel 7 has been responsible for the production as the presenting station; those rights are now BYUtv’s. And the Provo outlet has partnered with one of the biggest program providers in public television: Boston’s WGBH.
“I’m just thrilled about the association with WGBH,” said Michael Dunn, BYU Broadcasting’s managing director. “They do things right. They do things first class. And that’s the way that we want to do it as well.”
PBS is not centralized the way commercial networks are. It distributes programming produced by its member stations. And there is not a bigger PBS producer than WGBH. It provides two-thirds of the programming that PBS distributes to its member stations, including “American Experience,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Frontline,” “Masterpiece,” “The New Yankee Workshop, “NOVA,” “This Old House” and “Victory Garden.”
WGBH has also produced a wide range of children’s programming, including “Arthur,” “Between the Lions,” “Curious George,” “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” and “Zoom.”
And that station’s management didn’t hesitate when Dunn proposed partnering on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas program. “They just said, ‘Absolutely.’ It was kind of a given,” he said.
Dunn said BYUtv is looking to learn from WGBH to “see what we can glean from them when they take a look at the way we’re doing it.”
“And strategically, there’s equity in a partnership with someone like ’GBH, just because people know they are the standard-bearer in the arts. So it will definitely help our reach and distribution.”
The association with WGBH may make it easier to attract big stars to perform with the choir, he added.
This is not a case of trying to fix something that was broken. The special has been PBS’s most-viewed holiday programming for a dozen years. The hope is to make something good even better.
The pattern established when the MoTab Christmas special first aired on PBS in 2004 will remain unchanged — the program will be recorded one year and telecast the next. A year ago, three performances were recorded at the LDS Church’s Conference Center in Salt Lake City and edited together for the TV special.
For Utah viewers, the BYUtv/WGBH change means that KUED will no longer air the special before anyone else; Ch. 7 will telecast it on Friday, Dec. 15, at 8 p.m. — the same day it will be seen on PBS stations around the country.
This year, it debuts on BYUtv on Dec. 17 and on KBYU-Ch. 11 on Dec. 23. But in coming years, BYUtv will have “greater access in terms of when and how we show it,” Dunn said. Which means the special will be seen earlier and more often on BYUtv.
As of June 30, KBYU-Ch. 11 will give up its PBS membership and become a broadcast outlet for BYUtv programming. BYUtv will, however, continue to work with PBS stations — like WGBH.
And, while there is nothing in the works at the moment, Dunn is also hoping that BYUtv will find other projects that it can partner on with WGBH.
“This definitely opens the door for us,” he said.