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BYU to drop PBS and classical music format, pursue new national strategy

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PROVO — Bye Bye (Big) Birdie and Roll Over Beethoven. The end is near for KBYU-TV and Classical 89.

A major overhaul is underway at BYU Broadcasting, one that will scrap two iconic Utah brands to focus the organization fully on national aspirations embodied by the success of "Studio C" and the ambition of "Extinct," BYUtv's new science fiction show.

KBYU-TV will drop Big Bird, "Sesame Street" and its entire PBS affiliation, and Classical 89 FM will pull the plug on its classical music format.

The moves take effect June 30, 2018.

"This is a big change, particularly as it affects our legacy properties, and it's such a bold statement of who we want to be, and where we see ourselves going in the future," said Michael Dunn, BYU Broadcasting's new managing director. "We're just crazy and audacious enough to believe that we can create world-class, values-oriented family entertainment that will resonate with the world."

Dunn said a formal announcement about the changes was expected to be made Monday morning.

Both brands will sign off, too, but BYU will keep the TV and radio signals.

BYUtv programming will take over the KBYU-TV signal, and the KBYU call letters, in place for 52 years, will disappear.

BYUradio programming will air on 89.1 FM. BYU has had a radio station 71 years, and has operated an FM station since 1960.

"It gives us two banners to fly, BYUtv and BYUradio," said Dunn, who described himself as a dreamer and a believer. He said the decisions were based on a brand study and talks with staff, industry professionals and consultants.

The decisions make it possible for BYUtv to expand its national reach, he said. The network will launch a new family game show in January and its first sitcom later in 2018.

"'Extinct' has performed better than any of us would have imagined," he said, though a decision about a second season won't be made until after the first season's 10th and final episode airs Nov. 19.

Dunn hired Andra Johnson Duke as director of content and Ian Puente as director of operations and strategy in September. Duke comes from BBC Worldwide and Puente from EPIX, a premium movie and programming service.

"The thing I'm proudest of is this isn't a copycat," Dunn said. "This is a pioneering effort into the family entertainment space. ... I see that as a hilltop that is wide open for us to occupy and sort of stake our claim and do it a different way."

The decisions weren't made lightly. Last year, BYU Broadcasting reported that more than 50 percent of Utah households watched or listened to KBYU each month. Classical 89's ratings ranked in the top five classical music stations in the nation for percentage of listeners in a market.

Consolidating BYUtv and KBYU-TV will end the re-runs of "The Lawrence Welk Show" and "Perry Mason" but most other shows, like "Antiques Roadshow" and "This Old House," already air on KUED, the University of Utah's PBS affiliate.

"Even at its best, we were looking at duplicative programming," Dunn said. "It's a win for PBS, it's a win for KUED, it's a win for BYUtv and it's a win for public television viewers in Utah because it's a better use of resources all around."

Duplication occurred on BYUtv and KBYU-TV, too. Both carried BYU devotionals and LDS general conferences.

The change will end Utah political coverage and candidate debates on KBYU-TV. However, the BYU student news program, "Eleven News at Noon," will air in Utah only via a split feed.

Dunn knew the decision to drop classical music would pain loyal Classical 89 listeners because he is one. When KUER switched formats from classical music to news talk in 2007, protests came from U.S. senators, University of Utah law professors and the director of the Utah Symphony.

"I do get it. I understand. There will be some hurt people and feelings," Dunn said, adding, "In this particular case, it's clear that's what we need to do, is consolidate these radio properties under one banner. But I don't say that in a cavalier way, because I know this hurts."

Classical 89 will spend the next eight months educating listeners on other options for finding classical music, like Amazon Prime and Google Home, and inviting them to try BYUradio's new format.

What that will be isn't clear yet. Today, Dunn said he will sit down with BYUradio staff and ask them for help re-imagining BYUradio's format.

"It's very much an open palette," he said. "We want to figure out the highest and best use of that frequency."

No jobs will be lost.

Dunn took over the top job at BYU Broadcasting in April after serving as the president of the South Africa Johannesburg Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He previously worked as the general manager of KUED, the PBS affiliate in Salt Lake City.

The church and university launched BYUtv in 2001. The cable network is available in 60 million homes on satellite and cable systems. The KBYU-TV signal will boost the number of Utah homes where BYUtv can be seen in HD.

Dunn also announced that BYUtv International will focus temporarily on Spanish-language programming for the U.S. market.