Faith-Friendly Fare With Broad Appeal

PASADENA, Calif. — Independently owned network BYUtv continues to build its original programming lineup as it looks to gain distribution across multiple platforms. The Brigham Young University-owned network announced several new unscripted shows at last week’s Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour, including The Fixers, in which experienced builders travels around the world to remote locations in significant need; Making Good, a series chronicling one man’s quest to serve; and The Parent Trip, in which thrill-seeking celebrities take their parent or child on bucket list adventures.

BYUtv managing director Michael Dunn recently spoke to Multichannel News about the network’s programming and distribution strategy heading into the Independent Show. Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation.

Michael Dunn at the Television Critics Association Press Tour 

Michael Dunn at the Television Critics Association Press Tour 

 What’s the biggest misperception about BYUtv?

Michael Dunn: I think the biggest misperception is that BYUtv is a religious channel just for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But it's a math issue — there are 16 million members of the church, and the network is in 52 million homes, so we’re reaching a lot of people that aren’t members. When we create television shows, we want to create great, world-class TV so that people of faith and people with no faith who want to watch content can enjoy the programming, and that’s what we want to do. Our mandate is to be different and offer something that really stands out on the television landscape. We’ll probably forever and ever have to overcome that misperception, but I really believe its a Field of Dreams thing — you build it and people will come.

As an independent network in this very fluid and changing television environment, what is the best distribution platform for BYUtv?

We have to be a part of other platforms — we were the first network to stream free, unencrypted — so strategically we’re working very hard with some of the big providers and distributors. Because we’re noncommercial, we’re not beholden to any advertisers, so we’re in a very fortuitous position because we can share that content. We would even take a second-window position with our content so that large distributors can air [shows] first and then we’ll air it after this cycle. That’s really unusual for a network to do in this environment.  

Having said that, what is the biggest challenge facing independent networks?

BYU's 'Studio C'

BYU's 'Studio C'

I think exposure and awareness. All the big guns are in the game: Disney, Fox, ABC, ESPN and Apple — so the challenge for a small, independent network is that we have to be great in everything we do. We have one chance to land a punch, and there isn’t a second opportunity. Also, I think the viral nature of what were doing helps — we’ve really seen that with [sketch-comedy series] Studio C. The network distribution of the series has been great, but had it not been for putting the content on YouTube we wouldn’t have generated 2 billion views for the show. Even with the new sketches we do, I see that viral element — the clips are branded BYUtv, so eventually it starts to get out there. It’s going to be a long process, but we’re in this for the long run. So by partnering with other distribution platforms and by being so good with everything that we do, I think that’s our best way forward. 

Will the network look to lean more toward unscripted or scripted original programming going forward?

We’re a general, family-entertainment brand, so we’re not going to put our eggs in one basket of any kind. You’ll see scripted, unscripted, game shows, cooking shows, the whole gamut of the programming spectrum. Unlike in past years when that was a hodgepodge of content thrown together just to fill a 24/7 network, now its very strategic — there’s a family competition night, a comedy night and movie nights — so as a viewer you know what to expect when you come to the channel.

Do you believe that BYUtv’s clean cut, family-friendly content helps the network stand out in a crowded television environment?

What we hear in focus groups from believers and nonbelievers is that parents say they can trust us — they can tune into the network, leave the room and leave our kids there knowing that we can trust what comes on the screen. I never want to betray that, so there are some things that we’re never going to do. We want everybody, from that 8-year-old to grandpa, to be able to watch and laugh not be bashful about anything that’s on our air. 

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.