NEW YORK CITY — Last year, Michael Dunn inherited the hit sketch comedy show "Studio C," which now has 1.96 million YouTube subscribers and more than 1.5 billion YouTube video views, when he took over as managing director of BYUtv.
Dunn has spent the past year developing new comedies to pair with "Studio C" in the network's lineup even as the original cast of the show prepares to leave after Season 9, which premieres on Sept. 10.
Dunn sat down with the Deseret News while the cast filmed in New York City to talk about the success of the show and its original cast, plans for the new cast, and the way BYUtv plans to capitalize on the show's success in the clean comedy space.
This has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: You inherited "Studio C" when you took over at BYU Broadcasting last year. What was it like to inherit the hit show?
Michael Dunn: It's like inheriting any great franchise. You know it's been successful. The peek behind the curtains was the most amazing thing to me. This is a cast that is very cohesive. They're so prolific. When you consider what they've done in the area of sketch comedy, to do it that many years and still be at the top of their game, is pretty remarkable, because that's a grind for any performer.
(The cast members) are just genuine, nice people. ... We were at Citi Field last night and we saw two cute little boys with yarmulkes on and they've turned around and they've seen Matt (Meese) and you could see just the delight in their face and they came up and said, "Are you Scott Sterling?" Of all places, to see this at Citi Field. And Matt said, "Yeah," and they said, "Oh, can we take a picture?" Of course. Day in and day out, that's what he does.
It was fun to see their fame, even on the East Coast.
DN: How have you been able to leverage that brand since you came on board?
Dunn: The biggest thing we've done ... is said, "If there's fish, let's fish." Let's build other comedy shows that support this. The hard part of it, it's such a robust, rich, fun show, people tune in and you can't really follow-up with a nature special, you know? As much as people love tigers and giraffes, I could hear 150,000 TV sets clicking off, with all these kids. So the first show that I really approved and brought is our new show, "Dwight in Shining Armor." It will be our first-ever situational comedy, so you'll see that in this next year, paired with "Studio C."
Yesterday, USA Today published an opinion piece about how Netflix has abandoned the family. It started out with a lot of family films, but it is not family films today.
So we just view that category as wide open, in this particular space of humor, comedy and clean comedy, you know, no one's doing that. ...It's not just the fact that it’s clean comedy. We're really going after a co-viewing audience. By that I mean, we really believe that parents will watch great entertainment with their children. ... We also think it's really a very novel thing to be able to unite families in terms of entertainment, and not just solely bringing them together for entertainment, but making it purposeful. In other words, it's engaging entertainment.
DN: You mention the clean comedy space is still open. Are you surprised by that? Are you thrilled by that, that there is little competition for you?
Dunn: I am surprised. I'm not thrilled, actually, because I wish more people in the entertainment industry really saw the value of great entertainment and the value of content that reinforces what great family ideals are about love, about communication, experiences together. We're really modeling that, which is interesting for the entertainment industry.
DN: How do you gauge success? If everyone else is out there looking for 18-to-34 advertising dollars, how do you measure?
Dunn: First of all we're not looking for 18- to 34-year-olds. We want kids 8 to 15 and their parents, who are 35 to 54. Instead of going after what everybody and their dog is going after, we’re doing something unique by hitting on either end of the millennials with this content. And you know, we take measurement very seriously. You would think we're selling commercial airtime. We're not. We just want to be reasonable to our ownership in saying, yeah, we're making a difference. People are watching this network. We’ve got a long ways to go. We're still the little fish in the pond, but we really believe that program by program, series by series, we can start to make a difference in the entertainment world.
Something else I should say also is we're not naïve enough to think we can do this alone. So we are actually cherry-picking all the great production partners that are out there in the world, people who have like-minded values and want to do great family stuff. Here in New York we've just met with a great company called Keller Noll. Keller Noll is the production company that produced "Chopped" and "Chopped Jr.," some of the best. We're doing a family cooking competition show called "Dinner Takes All," and we're doing it with them, and they're just thrilled about.
DN: What is the business model? Do you want to sell advertising in the future?
Dunn: With our consolidation we no longer have KBYU, so we really don't have a local component at all. This is really national, everything is national in scope. Technically, our FCC license is a non-commercial license. So even if we wanted to sell ads, like Procter & Gamble kind of stuff, we couldn't do it. Now could we modify that license in the future? Yes. We'd have to reapply. Our magic again, though, is that we're not beholden to commercial interests. Yeah, we care about ratings. We want to build audience. That's what we talk about in all that we do, but that's not our top priority.
DN: You've mentioned new shows. When will these start?
Dunn: I've mentioned three or four, but right now we've got 21 new shows, programs, specials, cooking shows, game shows, one-off TV movies in our production cycle in 2018. So, spring of 2019 will be a banner day for BYUtv. Not that it’s all going to come at once, but shows will start to roll out.
DN: That sounds like, and this is an unfair comparison, but that you're like Netflix with a big new in-house production budget to create your own content instead of buying content from others.
Dunn: To compare us to Netflix is like comparing this drop of perspiration to the Atlantic Ocean. We're just not there. But I'm a big fan of, my favorite Old Testament story is David and Goliath. I think there's so many lessons in there, and I think chief among them is just the power in believing that out of small things proceedeth forth that which is great. It takes vision, it takes hard work, it takes talented people, but we really believe that we can make a dent, that we can make a difference.
DN: Where are your syndication deals happening?
Dunn: Really all over. We have two in Canada right now. We're working on a deal with the BBC right now. We've syndicated or licensed programs to networks in Europe, in Asia and Canada. It's really fun. There's a network in Canada called Yes TV. It's the No. 1 family entertainment network in Canada. I just looked at their website the other day and it’s so much fun to see "Random Acts," our show, prominently featured on their website. They bought it from us. This is very much a family values-oriented network. They see a program like "Random Acts" and they just cannot believe that when all the other reality shows are so mean-spirited, I mean they're trying to put a knife in someone's back, and here we do this pay-it-forward show and they just love it.
DN: Matt Meese said the other day that the original "Studio C" cast has been doing this for what will end up being six or seven years. How remarkable is it that they've stayed together this long?
Dunn: It really is a miracle. You look at "Saturday Night Live's" cast, it's been 43 years, that's been a revolving door of comedic genius that's come through there. It’s just been great in terms of what they do. I can't even imagine "Saturday Night Live" with just the same core cast for seven or eight or nine years. That's a real tribute to Kenan Thompson, that he's been there for 15 years as the anchor of that cast.
So I think it's really remarkable what our cast has done. I'm so grateful for the way they've raised the bar so high in sketch comedy. They've put a marker in the ground, and we now own that. If anything, I think our task now is leverage that and elevate it into the next iteration of "Studio C."
DN: What is the deadline for the casting call?
Dunn: We're eight months away from our next production cycle, which seems like a reasonable amount of time, but it's not, because so much has to come together. We hope to have the cast and writers solidified certainly by the end of the year, the next three or four months, and so far I'm really impressed with the response. We've had everything from the amateur kid who thinks he's really funny to the really professional people who are like, yeah, I could see myself being in the next version of this.
DN: Are you nervous about this change to your franchise show? You said this is the show that spikes your audience and that you are building other comedies to support it. Ideally, you'd want to launch those new shows this fall around the final season of the original cast of "Studio C," right? Will you have a couple of these new comedies running side by side with "Studio C" this fall?
Dunn: No. Season 9 of "Studio C" will repeat in the spring. I would say I’m not nervous, I'm optimistic, I'm excited for what's coming, only because we're not starting from scratch. The formula is there, the recipe is there. What we have to do is "plus it," find that talent that's out there and mold it into what I feel people will think is a Season 10. I adore this cast. I will miss this cast. This cast will be back. You'll see some of them coming back in guest performances. It's really important for people to understand this is a very amicable parting. This was a cast decision, not a management decision.
DN: When they came to you and said they were leaving, was there a pit in your stomach? This is your franchise show.
Dunn: It is. It is. I've actually known about it for some time, It wasn't like it came out of the blue. With great talent like this, there's a restlessness. You can only go to the well so many times, and their dipper is in there deep. Was there a moment? Yeah. Yeah. I was just like, wow, this is the franchise, but this concept of "Studio C" is so airtight, so time-tested, we know we have a hit on our hands. We just have to get the right people in the right seats. I feel we're going to be just fine.
DN: Matt came and pitched this idea to BYUtv. How did that deal work? What is your deal with him and the cast? Do they have a piece of the future, like a Seinfeld becomes the executive producer of his own show?
Dunn: This was an unusual structure because he did bring the idea. BYUtv in those days was just trying to fill air 24/7 and thought, what do we have to lose? So the cast are all full-time employees of BYU Broadcasting. It's a very unusual performer-producer relationship. Normally those are outside, individual contractors that may come and say, let’s say a show creator may come and say, this is the show we want to do, and here's the business person representing that side. That was never the case here. This was, here's an idea, let's try it, just like any employee suggesting, why don't we try this. So that landed the intellectual property squarely in our lap and frankly for this cast it gave them a solid springboard into their careers because they've established themselves.
DN: Let's talk brand equity. What does "Studio C" stand for?
Dunn: Our model internally is this is purposeful, values-driven content. There's a lot of value in making people laugh, and entertaining them in a way that is not a way that television is doing it with off-color, vulgar, crude sort of jokes. The value proposition is this: I've had people say this to me — I let my children or my grandchildren watch "Studio C" and I never have a second thought about it because I know I can trust it. If you think about it, that is such a high compliment that people have come to know and trust us.
You mentioned Jerry Seinfeld. He was the one who said truly great comedy is clean, because it's the hardest to do. Usually a performer will go to the shock value because they know it will get people to laugh. Conan O'Brien said the same thing. His quote on Instagram was so meaningful when he said his family was just watching "Studio C" and "they have brought a lot of laughter into my home." And it's because of his kids. This is Conan O'Brien! I think that's really impressive.
DN: Season 9 starts Sept. 10. When will we see Season 10?
Dunn: Same time a year from now. We'll see how this goes. I'm excited to see how this episode does, the first show as Season 9 as a debut, a kickoff.
DN:Does the cast double as the writers?
DN: So your writers' room is your cast?
Dunn: Right. We actually have some outside writers who have written for this as well, so it's been a combination.
DN: When you talk to outside writers, how do they feel about clean comedy like this? Do they feel a limitation?
Dunn: I don't think so. Writers know that a) we're not going to make it political, and b) we're not going to do anything off color. We've tightly defined what we're not going to do, but outside of that there is so much good stuff out there to find and discover. In this first episode we're shooting in New York, there's as sketch on this kid who's trying to study and he's besieged by sleep and by Netflix and by laundry. So we can do things looking at the world in a way that is so unique that other people don't have. It seems like politics and crude humor are the low-hanging fruits. We're trying to do something a little better, a little different.
DN: That lets other people continue to fill those niches but keeps you in a space with less competition.
Dunn: That's right. ... I just talked to Kenan backstage and he said, "Man, these guys are really funny and they're really good." It was almost like he was a little surprised, you know? I think sometimes people are a little wary that this is coming from a church-owned institution. Is it going to be preachy? Is it going to be staid? Is it going to be parochial kind of stuff? And it's not. It's smart. It's topical. It's even trendy stuff, but the approach to it just gives people a chuckle.
I think that's the genius of it. We can do that without having to go after the high-voltage topics like politics, sex and violence. It's pretty remarkable, really.