Online Originals

Breaking Down TV Walls

Families are watching BYUtv—together—which has the industry watching.

Greg Ehrbar
  • Dwight in Shining Armor

    BYUtv
  • Kenan Thompson with the cast of Studio C

    BYUtv
  • The cast of Studio C

    BYUtv

LA and New York are suddenly pitching a lot of shows to Provo, Utah.

The viewer diversity is burgeoning. Its original programs attract legions of fans on broadcast and online. New shows are coming this fall. Future shows are pitched constantly. In view of this, the name "BYUtv" is not necessarily the first that might come to mind. But a closer look reveals its unique and strikingly secular approach to the values of family and community.

"I think everyone just expects BYUtv to be a religious channel, but we're not," said Andra Johnson Duke, Director of Content Strategy and Development. "We're not taking any polarizing positions. It's just an environment where people feel good and feel motivated to give their families a hug and to be nice to their neighbor."

BYUtv is a nonprofit network operated by Brigham Young University in Provo. Utah. Any daily religious programming is usually scheduled for very early mornings and on Sundays, much in the tradition of local TV stations. The overwhelming bulk of BYUtv's schedule is made up of original comedies, competitions and dramas, also accessible at their website.

"We're in a very unique position," said Managing Director Michael Dunn. "We're nonprofit, so we're not beholden to ratings and commercial interests. My mandate is to make BYUtv a gift for the world. World-class television to be enjoyed by everybody."

One of BYUtv's biggest hits is a fantasy sitcom called Dwight in Shining Armor, in which a boy is saddled with medieval characters in modern-day life. "It was originally a Disney Channel property and they let the option expire," said Michael. "I was reading the scripts on an airplane and I was laughing out loud.

"Now we've got 20 episodes in the can, with new ones filming for next season. The greatest validation of that is Paramount has bought all the international rights."

"I think that some of the cable networks would have made Dwight a bumbling idiot," said Andra. "While he's a fish out of water, he's a hero in his own way. In episode one, he wins the day by using diplomacy. The parents in our focus groups said things like, 'That's what I'm always trying to teach my kids, that there's a better way.'"

Dwight's age hits the target of eight to 15. Duke and Dunn are quick to point out that no program is approved unless parents will watch it as well.

This has been especially true with BYUtv's long running sketch comedy show, Studio C. Families have told Duke that it is a Monday night ritual for them. "Most of what we're trying to create has an energy where both the tween/teen and parent have shows that they look forward to watching together," she said.

Like Saturday Night Live, Studio C stars beloved cast members, running characters and catch phrases that they've incorporated into their daily lives. Unlike SNL, there is no off-color material. Somehow they've managed to pull it off for 10 seasons.

"When Conan O'Brien had the cast on his show, he gushed about how he admired what they were doing and how they were able to keep the show clean," Dunn said.

"In fact, Conan's kids are huge Studio C fans. The Wall Street Journal did a page one story about Studio C, and how in the world a little troupe out of Provo could do all they've done. Studio C also has nearly two billion views on our YouTube channel."

The success of these programs and others—competitions like Relative Race and Dinner Takes All, dramas like Hetty Feather, reality shows like Random Acts as well as sports, specials and movies—have begun to send a fresh creative ripple through the Los Angeles, New York, British and Canadian TV communities.

"The thing we look at first is, why would this be on BYUtv and not on The Food Network, the Game Show Network or Discovery? It has to engage that teen/tween viewer, but very closely tied to the parental demo.

"Because some of what is created for that teen/tween market is very snarky and actually disrespectful to adults. We love to model that parent-child collaboration. Engaging in the community, working together, family connections, and family roots."

As an example of a program uniquely suited to BYUtv, Duke points to Relative Race, a highly successful series in which competing teams are reunited with family members, a first for television.

"You probably could not get a 12-year-old to sit down and watch a Who Do You Think You Are, which is a documentary series about family connections, but they love Relative Race. There's the competition aspect, with fun challenges and things like that. In the last third of every episode, they meet their family members, so they experience these impactful relationships.

"The big thing is looking for that kind of purposeful, interconnective piece. Our renovation program Welcome Home redesigns first apartments for people coming out of foster care or homelessness.

"They have nothing. Just blank walls, a mattress, and a bag of clothes. The renovators come in, and through donations and second hand furniture, make it into a home. It has this undercurrent of reaching out to others with the feeling of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. That would not necessarily air on HGTV because it's not process oriented enough. We skew more story/heart and less process.

"We look for things that can speak to everyone, so we don't go down political paths or anything that's sensitive or hot button. There shouldn't be anything in the shows that a parent would have to pre-screen. We take that really seriously."

"BYUtv has been described as 'lunge-free TV,' meaning you don't have to lunge for that remote as a parent and say 'Oh! You can't watch that!'" said Dunn. "Parents from all over the country say to me all the time, "We know we can trust BYUtv,' and we want to live up to that reputation."