BYUtv’s Extinct Offers a Unique Lesson in Modern Television-Making

TV Features Extinct
BYUtv’s Extinct Offers a Unique Lesson in Modern Television-Making

Within the last decade, the TV industry’s experienced its version of climate change.

This rocky evolution is best encapsulated by the phrase “peak TV.” Where the “Golden Age” offered the possibility of narrative and network risk and opportunity, “peak TV” presents an overcrowded, resource-exhausted field. One that makes everything, from the subject of a TV series to the reputation of its creators, influential in its ultimate success. When even TV’s giants are struggling to be remain relevant and financially profitable, a network trying to carve out a new space is a risky—and enlightening—endeavor.

BYUtv, based out of the Provo, Utah university’s state-of-the-art facility, is no exception. The Brigham Young University-backed station is responsible for reality series like the genealogy-focused Relative Race and the hidden-camera show Random Acts, but now it’s wading further into the scripted TV pool with its new series, Extinct.

Only the second scripted program to come out of the burgeoning network, Extinct is an hour-long, post-apocalyptic drama set 400 years in the future, following the extinction of the human race at the hands of genocidal aliens. Its actual set was built in, on top of and around the woods, fields and streams of the LDS Motion Picture Studio near the university. Other locations, such as Utah’s mountains and salt flats, also serve as a breathtaking backdrop.

It’s on this terrain that a group of humans known as “reborns”—those mysteriously reconstituted or regenerated after the extinction—attempt to rebuild. Unsure about why they were chosen, the group is determined to find out, on top of dealing with falling in love, demons from their past lives, re-establishing human society, and fighting off the dangerous parasitic alien race known as Skin Riders.

Aaron Johnston, the co-creator and writer behind Extinct, calls the series “a family-friendly, action/sci-fi adventure” that “makes you care about” the characters. That’s an angle that BYUtv, a self-described “feel good” network, highly values.

“When we sold this show to BYUtv, they told us, ‘Look, we love this idea. We want action. We want adventure. We want suspense, mystery, romance. We want all of that pizza,” Johnston says. “‘But we’re BYUtv. We’re a family-friendly network, so we need some broccoli, too. We need some human values evident in our show… They said that, and of course, we’re like, ‘That’s good storytelling anyway!’”

It is good storytelling, but any sci-fi fan will tell you that underneath the stunning visuals and award-worthy makeup, themes focusing on human values are often at the heart of the genre. “Family-friendly”? Not so much. Still, it’s an approach to an overcrowded storytelling market that BYUtv is dedicated to cornering with its latest series.

“Certainly, the [Latter Day Saints] audience is part of our audience, but it’s not the entire audience,” says Ryan Holmes, BYUtv’s director of technology and digital distribution. “Our target is people of all faiths, of all races, of all genders, who are seeking family-friendly, values-based content. Where the content is safe, but it’s not corny.”

A mystery set in a small Colorado town in the midst of the Cold War, Granite Flats was the network’s first scripted go at what Holmes describes as the “sweet spot” of “high production values, high-quality entertainment, but also purposeful” content. It wasn’t a kids show, but it was a more obvious and organic fit for the family-friendly label—a coveted demographic for networks like Nickelodeon, Disney and Hallmark, and to lesser degrees TLC and Freeform (formerly known as ABC Family),

Extinct isn’t exactly like the programming on any of those networks. The show features mass grave sites, killer viruses and highly aggressive bad guys who want the heroes dead. It’s not necessarily for the faint of heart, and yet the way it’s shot, edited and written makes it quite arguably a lot tamer than most sci-fi TV. There’s also dramatic tension and emotional stakes we don’t typically attribute to the tone of “family friendly.” Nevertheless, family—in all its iterations—remains a central part of the narrative’s larger messages. Meanwhile, uplifting themes, such as finding purpose, second chances and transformation, guide several character arcs.

“Talking to Aaron after I was hired and came up and started shooting the show, he basically said… [that] when he watched my tape, he knew he had his Ezra, because it reminded him of a young Rick from The Walking Dead,” says Chad Michael Collins, who plays the reborns’ leader, Ezra. “That’s exactly what he was looking for to be the leader of this group of reborns. [For an actor] be able to play that [kind of character] who is all about justice, but at the same time not as willing to go off the rails… It was nice.”

“Obviously, they’re in this terrible environment,” Johnston says. “The human race has been wiped out… There are just a few of them alive. It’s a violent and unyielding universe that they [have] found themselves in, but if we don’t care about who they are and what they value and what they stand for, then we’re not going to care what happens to them.”

“I really enjoyed [The CW’s] The 100 but I remember once I said, ‘Wow, [with] this show, they’re always beating each other up. [There’s] a lot of people covered in blood,” says Extinct director and co-showrunner Ryan Little. “Perhaps for people that don’t want to see that much in a show, maybe this is a better balance… We’re not making a kids show, but I think we’re trying to make a [show] that’s about family, but is also for family.”

Despite the sea of current programming, there’s little competition in the family-friendly sci-fi category. It would also seem that Extinct, which released eight Season One episodes in early October, with the last two set to premiere November 19, mostly falls in line with what BYUtv is looking for. But, as all nascent networks must ask themselves, is there an audience even looking for this kind of content?

The family-friendly demographic has remained elusive to many networks, and even those that push it—like Disney and Nickelodeon—don’t always nail it, content- or ratings-wise. While there are several reasons why it’s a tricky audience to tackle, one of the biggest is that it’s simply too large a viewership group to herd. Like the entire premise of “peak TV,” the demographic is being stretched thin, with many of its eyes already so many other places. For a network like BYUtv looking to expand their audience through the family-friendly lens, that could spell trouble.

Despite trying to capture a challenging audience, BYUtv’s executives are confident more people are looking for shows like Extinct than you might think.

“Yeah, it’s an era of peak TV,” says Clint Bishop, BYUtv’s director of marketing. “It’s certainly an era of peak scripted. But in some ways, when you look at the market forces, there’s a better opportunity now than ever.”

Holmes uses a content evaluation model—an axis chart featuring four types of programming—to illustrate how there’s space for the type of content BYUtv wants to offer. On that axis are innovative (or inventive), predictable (or standard), gratuitous (higher production values) and purposeful (lower production values) content.

“Scripted pulls people [towards gratuitous and innovative], right? That’s high production values, good writing, good acting,” Holmes says. “This is where the industry is going. We’re trying to remain purposeful, but become much more innovated. This is where we want to be. We feel like if everyone else is kind of going [one] direction, there’s a market for us. There is an opportunity for someone to stand out.”

Much of BYUtv’s entrance into scripted production feels, like many upstart networks, a little David and Goliath. But in some ways, the series and network are a sleeping giant of the TV industry. At present, BYUtv broadcasts on Dish Network, DirecTV and hundreds of US cable systems, in addition to having apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Windows, Chromecast, Kindle Fire and Kindle TV. According to Holmes, the network is currently available in more than 50 million American households.

Founded in 2000, BYUtv is both operated and funded by Brigham Young University. Because the university receives financial backing from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, so does the network, which means there’s a consistent financing source for productions. The lack of another scripted program also increases the likelihood of Extinct’s continuation—a luxury series on networks with more crowded schedules aren’t always extended. Of course, ratings do still matter, but how BYUtv operates—with a pre-established brand identity and built-in audience—is an opportunity out of the gate that other networks and series don’t have.

“In the traditional media world, it’s all driven by advertising,” Holmes says. “And because we don’t have the same profit motive that they have, our primary concern is letting as many people as possible see our punt. The content is the message.”

“We’re still, I think, learning [in scripted], but we have a little bit of a track record now, some experience to guide our decisions going forward,” Holmes continues. “But it’s—”

“Certainly not a science,” Bishop adds.

To its advantage, Extinct already has a connection to BYUtv’s existing audience, and it’s in line with the network’s identity. Plus, the post-apocalypse—from The Walking Dead and The 100 to 12 Monkeys and Colony—is in. Still, for much of its existence, the network has focused on programming for the needs of the university and the church. That means university sports, early education series like Sesame Street and Clifford, comedy sketch show Studio C and church-related programming. That history may prove to be the foremost hurdle to Extinct’s and BYUtv’s success with a wider audience.

“When BYUtv first started, it’s mantra was ‘Keeping you connected,’” Bishop says. “The target audience were students, alumni and members of the LDS church. And at the time, the content reflected that positioning. The content was a reflection of the university and the university’s ideals.”

The network’s tagline has since changed to “See the good in the World,” but there’s no denying that, unlike other new networks (Viceland, for instance), many people associate the BYU brand with strictly religious content. Extinct also falls within a genre that seemingly counters some long-standing religious narratives, and faces assumptions about what might appear on a network like BYUtv. Plus, it’s co-created by Orson Scott Card, whose Hugo and Nebula Award-winning book Ender’s Game is regarded as part of the must-read sci-fi canon, but whose political and personal views have been long recorded (even through his own blog) and often described as highly controversial.

Card has a history of opposing equal rights for the LGBTQ community. He wrote an essay comparing then President Obama to the Nazi leader Hitler, and has continuously taken anti-Muslim stances. And yet, like Ender’s Game, BYUtv’s Extinct explores themes about diversity, uniting amid differences, overcoming oppressive forces, hope, and tolerance.

In an entertainment culture in which the lack of working women or disabled people at film studios and TV networks spur furious news cycles; as writers rooms are called out on their mishandling of black and LGBTQ characters; amid the ongoing stream of sexual misconduct, harassment and assault allegations against prominent men in the industry, one thing is increasingly clear. While it may have once been possible to put distance between the studio and product, creator and the created, doing so in our current TV climate is going to be harder than ever before. Card’s politics may not only be seen as undermining Extinct’s narrative messaging, but also as running counter to BYUtv’s open-audience approach that encourages “people of all faiths, of all races, of all genders” to watch.

This—all of this—is what makes Extinct’s first season worth paying attention to. Extinct doesn’t just have strong cast chemistry, compelling character arcs and fun—but tense—sci-fi action. It’s not just a show about what happens to us after the world ends or how we use our second chances. Extinct is a metaphor for the (re-) birth of a network. It’s a case study in the challenges of making a TV show in the middle of a major change in the medium’s climate, from potential controversies and network branding to reimagining genre and capturing your audience.

It’s too early to say whether the series will be what BYUtv needs to broaden its appeal, but in this tumultuous TV landscape, there’s certainly a lot we can learn from whether it sinks or swims.

The two-part finale of Extinct Season One airs Sunday, Nov. 19 on BYUtv. Watch the first eight episodes online or on the BYUtv app.

Abbey White is a Brooklyn-based, Cleveland raised freelance entertainment and identities writer whose work has appeared in Vox, USA TODAY, Paste, The Mary Sue, and Black Girl Nerds, among other publications.

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