How BYUtv serves as a ‘store window’ of the Church — and how it’s working

As an executive in the television industry, Deirdre Brennan knows well that content designed for a family audience is difficult to find. But “making screen time family time” is worth the effort, she said.

“When you find a great partner to work with who can create great content, it’s like a win-win for everybody, including the audience,” said Brennan, the executive vice president of content partnerships at WildBrain, an independent family-based content company home to iconic brands such as “Peanuts,” “Strawberry Shortcake,” “Teletubbies” and “Inspector Gadget.”

Brennan said WildBrain had been “an admirer” of BYUtv — a television network owned and operated by Brigham Young University — and a clear alignment between WildBrain’s Family network in Canada and BYUtv’s existing content generated a working partnership in 2019. 

“I was really struck by the push for originality and support of inspiring, audacious ideas,” she said of meeting with BYUtv. “They pursue editorial excellence in all their content from sports broadcasts to primetime family shows.”

Since then, WildBrain has collaborated with BYUtv and BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) on the scripted, live-action production “Malory Towers.” A one-hour family drama is in development, and WildBrain is looking at licensing several of BYUtv’s original productions for its TV network, Brennan said. 

Ella Bright stars in "Malory Towers," the new hit drama on BYUtv. Bright plays Darrell Rivers, the newest arrival at an all-girls boarding school in post-World War II England. All episodes are available to stream on the BYUtv app.
Ella Bright stars in “Malory Towers,” the new hit drama on BYUtv. Bright plays Darrell Rivers, the newest arrival at an all-girls boarding school in post-World War II England. All episodes are available to stream on the BYUtv app. Credit: BYUtv

Though BYUtv has a specific audience and community, “they’ve had a broader global impact than you would ever imagine,” she added.

Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might know BYUtv as the mastermind behind “Studio C” — a sketch comedy show that has garnered more than 2.2 billion views on YouTube. Others might know BYUtv for broadcasting BYU’s sporting events or campus devotionals.

More than comedy, sports and religious programming, BYUtv is seeking to fill “an abandoned hilltop in family television,” with its wide array of entertainment that children want, parents trust and families can enjoy together, said Michael A. Dunn, managing director of BYU Broadcasting who also serves as an Area Seventy in the Utah Area. 

“Right now, even in the midst of COVID-19, we have more than 19 different productions going on in various parts of the world — from dramas, cooking shows, game shows, made-for-television movies, things like that. It’s a pretty ambitious undertaking for a network our size,” Dunn said.

BYU Broadcasting Managing Director Michael A. Dunn on the set of "BYU Sports Nation."
BYU Broadcasting Managing Director Michael A. Dunn on the set of “BYU Sports Nation.” Credit: Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

A ‘store window’

Offering a platform for Latter-day Saints to connect remotely to family-friendly entertainment and the Church, BYUtv is also a way for the public to see the Church in a “nonthreatening way,” said Elder Lynn G. Robbins, a General Authority Seventy who serves as an adviser to BYU Broadcasting.

To Dunn, BYUtv offers a “store window of the Church” — allowing viewers to see “the goodness and the light that we have in every one of our productions” and come back for more.

It could be “normal and natural” to say to a friend, “Hey, I want to tell you about this great television channel that’s perfect for your entire family,” Dunn said. “That allows friends outside our faith to sample the broad array of family programs we have, and to experience the values-infused entertainment platform that BYUtv is.”

Exponential growth

Dunn said BYUtv has “grown exponentially” since he assumed the role of managing director in April 2017 after serving as president of the South Africa Johannesburg Mission. He was a former general manager of KUED Channel 7, a PBS affiliate in Salt Lake City, and has worked in broadcasting and media production for more than 30 years.

BYUtv falls under BYU Broadcasting, which also includes BYUradio and Classical 89. BYU Broadcasting has its origins in KBYU, which began as a small AM radio station in Provo, Utah, in the late 1940s. An opportunity in public television came in the early 1960s, and KBYU-TV, a PBS affiliate, was born. 

A “big breakthrough” came about four decades later when the station was approached by a major TV satellite service provider to be included with their subscriptions. BYUtv was officially launched in 2000 as a non-commercial nationwide family entertainment channel, and “it really took off,” Dunn said. 

At first, BYUtv primarily aired devotionals and reruns of sporting events. But in the last 20 years, content has become increasingly more diverse. 

BYUtv’s first original scripted series — Cold War drama “Granite Flats” — is credited with significantly expanding the channel’s audience. It began streaming on Netflix in May 2015

In 2019, Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing and Distribution acquired international rights for “Dwight in Shining Armor,” a scripted series of a modern-day fairytale. 

On set with "Dwight in Shining Armor" stars Sloane Morgan Siegel, Caitlyn Carmichael and Evan Hofer.
On set with “Dwight in Shining Armor” stars Sloane Morgan Siegel, Caitlyn Carmichael and Evan Hofer. Credit: Lindsey Dowell

New shows in 2020 include “Grace Notes,” hosted by Neon Trees drummer Elaine Bradley, and “Wayne Brady’s Comedy IQ,” hosted by Wayne Brady, a comedian on the improvisational series “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

BYUtv has won multiple Emmy Awards, and several of its original series have caught the attention of national television critics. The Parents Television Council wrote in May, “When it comes to producing and distributing family-friendly content, BYUtv has become a gold standard for delivering on its promise.”

Today, BYUtv is carried by more than 140 cable and satellite providers, with those providers able to reach a total of 66 million households in the United States. Though broadcast television viewers are generally declining, BYUtv’s average viewers over the last three years have increased, Dunn said.

In October, BYUtv’s digital views totaled 5 million in a single month — a milestone that would have been unthinkable three years ago, he added. 

BYUtv’s free app allows users to stream live programming and watch (or “binge”) the more than 2,000 hours of content in its library. “I don’t think a lot of members of the Church realize the vastness of the entertainment resources that are within that single little app on their phone,” Dunn said. 

On location in Ohio for "The Wizard of Paws," director of photography Benjamin Zupo gets up close and personal with Ferdie, a lucky recipient of a new prosthetic limb.
On location in Ohio for “The Wizard of Paws,” director of photography Benjamin Zupo gets up close and personal with Ferdie, a lucky recipient of a new prosthetic limb. Credit: James DuBourdieu