Tim Winter’s Interview with Michael Dunn, Managing Director of BYUtv

Written by PTC | Published May 8, 2020

Tim: Michael, please tell us a bit about the BYUtv network; its history, the content you produce/distribute, and the audience you’re intending to reach.

Michael: Coming from a humble, PBS-affiliate heritage, BYUtv was officially launched in 2000 as a non-commercial, nationwide family entertainment television channel. Initially we were only carried by Dish and DirectTV. But in the two decades since then, we’re now on 154 cable and satellite systems and in 54 million homes. Adding in our streaming and OTT audience over our free app and on-demand library, we easily reach millions of other people through digital devices. We have partnerships with world-class production companies and networks such as ESPN and WGBH, and we work with top talent such as John Legend and Wayne Brady.

In determining the audience we could best serve, we embarked on a strategic market review a few years ago. Through that we identified a badly-neglected, sparse and mostly-abandoned hilltop in the television landscape. And that was the “tween” demographic, comprised of young people ages 8-15. Research verified that that particular age group is still at a very impressionable and influential age when parents feel a responsibility to vet content for their kids, but they are also very willing to watch it together. So we saw an opportunity to produce “co-viewing” entertainment aimed at this population. That evolved into an internal aspirational goal for BYUtv to be a destination for families with uplifting, positive entertainment programming that brings them closer as a family and encourages them to be a force for good in their homes, with extended families and friends and in their communities.

Tim: What differentiates your programming from other network programmers?

Michael: At BYUtv, we have picked our lane. And we stay in it. Viewers know they can trust us for the family entertainment they expect. We want to be the family entertainment brand that young people want, parents trust and families can enjoy together. And we are laser-like focused on that goal. Every second of programming right down to the frame has to align with that template. Internally we refer to what we do as “lunge-free TV,” meaning there will never be anything on BYUtv that you as a parent would need to grab the remote to fast forward or mute what’s going on. But it’s much more than just being devoid of sexualized, violent or objectionable content. What we do is purposeful without being preachy. And we do that by also being entertaining. We hope to raise ideas that promote engagement and discussion within the family. Even when a program is over, the processing and application of its message has just begun. We call this the “vitamin water” aspect of our content.

And rather than being all things to all people, our mix of scripted dramas, unscripted reality (which we call “reality with heart”), music specials and movies, faith and spirituality, clean comedy and family adventure shows, offer viewers a diverse menu of content that families can enjoy in an understandable and user-friendly programming grid.

We also have a significant advantage over other networks in that we are non-commercial. BYUtv is not beholden to offering content that attracts advertising dollars. Instead, we have the luxury of remaining true to our mission of providing inspiring content that brings much needed light to an ever-darkening media landscape.

Tim: What is your view on the marketplace and demand for family-friendly entertainment?

Michael: This question brings to my mind the first speech delivered by the newly-named chairman of the FCC, Newton Minow, to the NAB in 1961. After a few pleasantries, Newton minced no words in describing the current marketplace:

“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

“But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

“You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it. The demand and the need is enormous. Research says this is something that families in America want.”

It's staggering to me that this speech was delivered a half-century ago. And if it was a “vast wasteland” then, one can only imagine how Newton would characterize our current state of television relative to quality family viewing. Especially given the unimaginable explosion of linear and digital platforms even in the last five years.

Tim: I love your reference to Newt Minow and his now-infamous remarks. I’m fortunate to have had the privilege to meet personally with Newt, at his office in downtown Chicago several years ago; and I can actually answer that question: He described the current state of television as a “toxic dump!”

Michael: Simply put, two things are clear about the last five decades of television; while the quantity of offerings in the marketplace has risen exponentially, the quality has suffered in inverse proportion. And given the current polarization and prevailing animus in our society, there has perhaps never been a greater need for quality family television.

Tim: How has streaming media impacted your business?

Michael: Our forward-thinking team saw the digital tsunami coming a long time ago. In 2005, BYUtv was actually the first television station in America to launch a 24/7 adaptive stream. Thus we’re proud of our heritage as a legitimate pioneer in the OTT world, and have continued to embrace that ever-changing world even as we have maintained our investment in our linear platform. With clients in all the major steaming platforms including Roku, XBox, AppleTV, Amazon Fire TV, and Chromecast, we are as mature and digitally robust as any commercial network. Our free app is available in both the Apple iOS and Android stores, and has been downloaded by more than a million people. And, as proud as I am of that, I’m reminded that one of our YouTube channels has more than 1.8 billion views. Lots of people know BYUtv in the online world. Our VOD library is available free online, and without a paid subscription. We also provide our livestream free of charge and even broadcast concurrent events such as hundreds of hours of live sports. It’s a delicate dance for sure to be able to be a viable player in both the linear and digital worlds, but we’re committed to both for the foreseeable future.

Tim: How has the current pandemic impacted your programming and your business?

Michael: Like most television networks, these are record-setting days for us. Our primetime numbers are booming. And with the COVID-19 virus requiring so many people to work from home, even our daytime numbers are surging. Operationally, it’s been tough. But thanks to many heroic people in our organization—and especially our engineering team and network operations staff—we haven’t missed a beat. The greatest impact has been on our very ambitious production calendar. Right now, we have 21 different shows in various stages of production. What really worries me are those that we are planning to shoot this summer. We’ll be watching carefully the back to work guidelines in the states and countries we are shooting in. If there is a silver lining, it is for those shows that are still in pre-production. I’m a big believer in preparation. The more we can do to get a show right on paper, the better it will be when it hits the air. And this extra gift of time is going to bless our overall quality, I believe.

Tim: What counsel would you give to families who are doing their best to navigate this quarantine with kids at home?

Michael: We believe BYUtv is a great tool for engagement. I invite families to watch us together and then talk about the shows. That ability to process ideas and themes is a great way for parents to teach their children important values in a very natural setting. It’s also a great way to learn from our children, who often have very profound insights we would have never considered. Dwight in Shining Armor, a comedy adventure that just began its third season, is a perfect catalyst for these conversations. Two new competition shows that children and parents will love watching and discussing together are Wayne Brady’s Comedy IQ and All-Round Champion, both of which feature young talented contestants. And my real tip for this time is to watch some of the shows in our comedy block like Studio C or Show Offs. Laughing out loud together is one panacea for this pandemic that actually works!

Tim: Thank you, Michael. Where can we learn more about BYUtv?

Michael: You can find us on all major cable and satellite systems. But I highly recommend just downloading our free app at the Apple or Android stores. That gives you free access to our live stream and on-demand library. You can also learn more and stream right from our web site, which is www.byutv.org.

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