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Making Family Television: An Interview with Dave Johnson

It’s difficult to make a TV show. Actually getting one on the air is even more difficult. And when it’s “family television,” the odds are even less forgiving.

Yet, family TV shows do make their way into living rooms, and each show must be written, produced and edited.
Dave Johnson, co-creator of the PAX network’s hit show “Doc,” has beaten the odds. Johnson, with his brother Gary, is the creative force behind the top-rated drama starring Billy Ray Cyrus, best known for his country music career (“Achy Breaky Heart”).
“Doc” follows the adventures of Clint Cassidy (Cyrus), a small-town <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Montana doctor transplanted to New York. Original episodes of “Doc” regularly beat their competition on the WB and UPN networks in 70 percent of the top 50 markets. And “Doc” recently beat its competition on NBC in three of the top 50 markets.
“That’s unheard of,” Johnson told EthicsDaily.com. And he would know.
Johnson went to Los Angeles over 20 years ago to act, which he did for almost a decade. He then started writing TV and film scripts “on spec”—that is, scripts for which there was no commitment to buy.
He sold several and got numerous assignments, finally getting his own TV show. At that point, he asked his brother Gary to join him as a partner, which he did.
The show was “Against the Grain,” which starred Ben Affleck. Assignments continued and included shows like “The Client” for CBS and “High Incident” with Steven Spielberg for ABC/DreamWorks.
Then PAX called.
PAX, owned and operated by Paxson Communications Corporation, launched in 1998. It’s the nation’s seventh broadcast network, reaching roughly 86 percent of U.S. households with televisions. It carries original and syndicated programming, emphasizing family viewing. Syndicated shows include “Bonanza,” “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” and “Touched by an Angel.”
Jeff Sagansky, now president and CEO of PAX, had worked with Johnson years ago at CBS, and decided to approach him about producing a family show for PAX. So the Johnson brothers wrote the fish-out-of-water pilot episode for “Doc.”
Born and raised in a small, rural town on the Iowa-Minnesota border, the contrast between small-town life and big-city living in “Doc” was familiar to the Johnsons.
It also resonated with Cyrus, who grew up in Flatwoods, Ky.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
“He’s a committed believer,” Johnson said of Cyrus. “He knew God had dropped [the show] in his lap. He gets what we’re doing.”
What they’re doing, in essence, is making 22 movies a year.
“TV is a grind,” Johnson said. But it has an advantage: It’s possible to create a story, write it, shoot it and show it quickly, whereas feature-length movies usually take about two years to go from script to screen.
As for the lag-time in TV production, Johnson said it takes three or four weeks to move from concept to finished script. The crew shoots an episode in seven days, and then does about four weeks of post-production work (editing, effects, etc.). In roughly two months, the idea moves from a writer’s head to a family’s living room.
This frenetic pace, however, lets TV producers tackle current events. “Something happens tomorrow, and we can have it on TV in six or seven weeks,” Johnson said.
As an example, Johnson cited an episode called “Some Gave All,” which used Cyrus’ song of the same name and paid tribute to military heroes and veterans.
The Johnsons actually wrote the story in July 2001 and started shooting it on Sept. 10, the day before terrorists attacked New York and Washington. They watched events unfold from Toronto, where “Doc” is shot. 
After the dust settled, PAX asked the Johnsons if the episode’s story line could include America’s new war and become a two-hour special instead of a one-hour regular episode. The Johnsons agreed, and the episode aired on Veterans Day, 2001. It will air again around Memorial Day.
“This show is an amazing blessing to us,” Johnson said. “It’s our mission. We don’t go in with our own agenda. We say, ‘God, what do you want us to do today? And we’ll do it.'”
Producing family television isn’t easy. “Nobody wants it,” Johnson said, adding that PAX is the only network that would carry “Doc.”
“It doesn’t enhance your standing in the club to do a show about truth that touches people between the coasts,” Johnson said. “PAX is the only place that stood up and said, ‘We want to do this.'”
Another challenge to good family programming, he said, lies with the temptation to be heavy-handed and preachy. 
“Jesus told parables, and they were entertaining parables,” Johnson said. Writers and producers must first entertain audiences in order to get them thinking, not the other way around.
Entertaining isn’t easy, but “if I’m living a full Christian life, then my life should be entertaining,” he said. And good writing springs from that.
Furthermore, “It’s not enough just to support something because it’s a Christian product,” he said. “It has to be professional and you have to do it well.”
Johnson is doing it well, as evidenced by the success of “Doc.” He and his brother also have a new series at PAX, “Lip Service.” It follows the true story of a deaf woman who did surveillance for the FBI because of her ability to read lips.
“Lip Service” starts shooting this summer and will air this fall. And for Johnson and PAX, it will keep the momentum for quality programming going.
“This is a snowball headed downhill,” he said.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.
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“Doc” airs on PAX TV on Sundays, 8 p.m. ET. Four new episodes will air beginning April 28.