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Dan Debenham

By December 11, 2019 09:16 AM
Dan Debenham
Mr. Debenham has been working in the television & production industry for 30 years as an anchor, reporter, writer, producer and executive producer, including 10 years with ESPN. While at ESPN, Dan helped create a wide variety of original programming, including the X-Games.


What a fantastic, beautiful day! I love these kind of brisk days. As I walked over from the Conference Center, these bluebird days. I grew up in Alaska, so these brisk, really kind of bone-chilling days are great. I hope you guys feel the same way. It’s a real pleasure and honor to be here. I love talking about Relative Race.

First, by show of hands—don’t be embarrassed; you’re not going to hurt my feelings—how many people have actually seen Relative Race? Oh! More than I thought. Okay, that’s good. So, about half of you. That’s good. I actually spoke last week up in Heber, and there were about 800 people there, and I asked that same question thinking, “There are a lot more people in Heber that know this show,” and about 100 raised their hand. I thought, Why are the rest of you here? But I’m thrilled that you are here.

Let me tell you a little about Relative Race and why it means so much to me. I hope those who watch it feel the spirit of the show. And if you haven’t watched it, I hope you will take the time, because there is something very unique about this show. In almost 35 years of television production, I have never been involved with anything that is so difficult to produce and yet so personally and professionally, incredibly, satisfying. It is humbling to be a part of this show.

This show is about finding family, discovering family, and uniting them. Let me tell you how we do it. We cast four teams of two people each. Sometimes they are married couples; sometimes they are father/sons or mother/daughters. Sometimes they are siblings. Those four teams have very personal reasons for being on the show. They have deep “back stories,” as we like to call them. And they tell us why they are searching for family and what that would mean to them.

Then we fly them out to a location somewhere in the United States, and we take away all of their technology. So, just put yourself in this position. Let’s say that you happen to be somebody out here who is desperately looking for family or has wanted answers that you have been searching for your whole life. And you’ve signed up to be on this show. It’s an unscripted reality show. There are ten days of racing, and it is completely unscripted. We do not tell them what to say. I do not have anything scripted for me.

You’re flown out, and the very first thing you are told is, by the way, you have to get to ten different cities over the next ten days, in a race, and we’re taking away all your technology—no GPS, no smart phones, or anything else. It really happens. We give them old-fashioned paper maps—like real paper—and then we tech them. We give them old-fashioned flip phones with no GPS or internet, and then we text them every day with clues to follow where they race to a different city every day. And as they follow those clues, at the end of the day, they wind up on a doorstep. They knock on the door, and as soon as they arrive at that doorstep, their clock stops. They have been timed from the moment they got their first text, to the moment that they knock on that door.

This is by design. We don’t want them to be worried about the race anymore. There is actually $50,000 at the end of this race, up for grabs. But we want them to put the race out of their minds and think about who is on the other side of this door. And when they knock on that door, I’m going to show you what happens in a few scenes.

If you are the last one to find your relative, or it takes you the longest to find your relative every day, then you receive a strike. Three strikes and you are out of the race. But if you make it to day ten—ten days of racing—and you finish first on day ten, then not only have you found your family, but you also win $50,000. Thus the term, “Relative Race.” And it is done in this unscripted format, and we thought it might be popular. And it seems to be enormously popular. I hope that that might pique your interest. We call that a “tease” in our business. I hope that has teased you to be interested in the show.

In this setting—I was just speaking with your good president beforehand, and his wife—in this setting, I’m able to share with you the enormous difficulties and miracles that take place. My wife—I wish she was here; she’s preparing to go on a trek, but I wish she was here with us—my wife, for years—and we’re into our seventh season of Relative Race. We’ve been nominated for two years in a row—and I hope that we all have proper pride in this—BYUtv has supported a show that for the last two years has been a finalist—one of only six shows in the United States—that have been finalists for the Emmy for Best Reality Show. We’ve lost to “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” so that kind of tells you. But having said that, I like our show better.

My wife—for the first several years, we didn’t know if the show was going to continue. It’s not an inexpensive show to do. It takes us about—the production cycle is about 16 to 17 months, to do one season. And I would come home kind of stressed, as the person at our company responsible to make sure that we can pay our employees every two weeks, I was pretty stressed. Most of our resources go to a show of this magnitude. And I would always say, “Honey, I don’t know that this show is going to continue.”

My wife would calmly look at me and would say, “You’re not in charge.”

And I would say, “No, actually I am. You know what I do. I am in charge, and it’s actually only me. I’m responsible for this.”

She goes, “No, you’re going to figure it out someday that you’re not in charge of this show.”

I’m like, “No, actually, I am. I created it and it’s got to go the way…”

And she says, “No.”

By the way, two times when this happened, I came home kind of haggard and stressed, and she came from the temple. And she looked at me and she said finally one day—this was about three weeks that I was doing this, and finally she came home and she said, “Dan, if you don’t understand it, let me be very, very clear. Your Father in Heaven is in charge of this show. This show has to happen.”

I didn’t know that there would be another season, but that was five seasons ago. I’m not in charge. That has been shown me many, many times over the past few seasons. There are miracles upon miracles, some of which I hope to share with you if we have the time.

With this unscripted format, you never know what’s going to happen. We only hope—we hope—we have 36 cameras rolling, divided amongst these four teams. We have a trailing group behind the car that they’re racing in; we have a group in front of them. We have a group that is setting up challenges. You’ll see that, much like Survivor or Amazing Race, we actually build, construct, and test challenges which are part of each of their days’ race. They have to arrive in the city and overcome challenges. Again, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ve researched it; we know who the relatives are. We’ve contacted the relatives and they have agreed to be in their homes on a certain day, on that exact day that we are going to arrive, but we just don’t know how that meeting is going to take place.

So with that in mind, I want to first introduce you to Joe and Maddie Greer. I’m going to set it up for you. Joe and Maddie were youth counselors at a Bible school in Oregon. They met online, fell in love, and married. They were newlyweds on this show. You’re going to hear his story and you’re going to find out what happened as he went on this race.

The first thing that I want to show you, though, is a little promo. You guys see promos for all your favorite shows, right? This is a little promo that we hope will kind of set the tone, and in this case, the spirit, of the show. So let’s go ahead and take a look at that.

(Video of promo clip)

So, I get a little emotional every time I see that, because I know every one of those teams and those people, and they stay in touch. Many of them—again, in this setting—I’m pleased to say that many of them have been introduced to the gospel. One of the teams has actually joined the Church. She actually works for us, the wife. She moved from Texas and works for Lenzworks Productions.

I talked about Joe Greer. Here is Joe’s story, and here is what happened on one day, one scene, for Joe.

(Video of Joe and Madison Greer)

A quick backstory on that. It’s quite a call when you call somebody up and you say, “You have a son (or a daughter), and we’re hoping you’ll be on our show and we can reveal that to you and to them on this nationally broadcast television show, live to tape.”

When we contacted Joe’s father, he said, “I don’t have a son.” That’s the typical reaction. He said, “I don’t have a son.”

I said, “Well, actually, you do. And we’re hoping that we can send you some footage of our show and that you’ll understand that our show is not about tearing down people, like most unscripted shows. This is about building people and building relationships up, and we show the best of people.”

He said, “You’ll have to convince me.”

I said, “Well, we have the DNA.”

He said, “Where did you get it?”

I said, “Ancestry DNA.”

He said, “Oh, that’s a cheap company. I can’t trust that. If you’ll have this paternity test that’s $700.00, maybe I’ll believe that.”

We said, “Done. We’ll pay for it.” We sent it to them. It came back, and we said, “You are 99.99999% sure that this is your son.”

He said, “Oh, that’s the wrong company. If you’ll do this company….”

So we did a third one, and finally at that realization, he said, “I want to meet my son.”

What is amazing here is that he also met—for those of you who watched that season—he [Joe] also met siblings that he’d never known. Five months after the show, his father passed away, and so he was able to be there with his family.

The next little clip that I want to show you is something that kind of reverses that. We called up the father. We said, “You have a son.” His reaction was just the opposite of that. He’s from North Carolina. You’ll see he’s got a twang; he just talks like this.

And he said, “No boy should ever be without his daddy. Had I known I had a boy, I’d have been there. I want to meet my son.”

I said, “Great. It’s on this day that we’ll be at your house.”

“Oh, I won’t be there.”

“What day will work for you? We might be able to move it by a couple of days. We’re about two months out from filming. Maybe we could move all ten days by a couple of days. Are you on vacation?”


“Is there a family emergency?”


“Well, is there another day that will work?”

“No, I just won’t be there.”

“Okay, I’m having a little bit of a hard time understanding; why won’t you be there?”

“Well, I’ll be dead.”


“I’m dying.”

So we had to, in that moment, we had to make a decision. How do we film this now, knowing that his father isn’t going to be alive when we’re actually filming the show, when we have found the father? We went out and filmed it beforehand. So, here is Michael and Dylan, a father and son team. You’ll hear his story. They are obviously from North Carolina as well, as you will hear from the twang. But watch this moment.

(Video of Michael Anderson and his son Dylan)

We may be able to see this final [clip] or we may not. The final clip that I want to show you is Rebecca Hoyt. For those of you who watched, you might remember that her father killed her mother, and was serving—is serving—a lifetime sentence in prison in California. She was adopted by her father’s side of the family, who told her nothing about her mother’s side of the family. She knew nothing about her mother or her mother’s side of the family. And hopefully we’ll be able to show you this clip.

Again, watch the moment when she finds a blood relative from her mother’s side of the family. In this, I hope that we will take away—I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. I don’t like to prepare thoughts or take notes, I just like to kind of speak from the heart or from the Spirit. I hope that we will take away how valuable our families are.

A dear friend of mine, Brother and Sister Peay, are here today. Sister Peay actually changed my two youngest boys’ lives. But she was part of our challenge when we lost our oldest son four and a half years ago in a sudden accident. I thought I understood the importance of family. I thought that I felt it; I thought that I knew it. But I know how hard it has been since I lost an integral part of my family.

I can’t imagine what it would be like not knowing your family. I can’t imagine what it would feel like, like you heard from Michael there, where he said, “All I want to do is know if there is somebody out there that loves me.” I hope that you don’t have that in your lives. If part or all of your family is whole, I hope that you will walk away from this devotional today with a deeper sense of love and appreciation, one that allows us to speak more kindly to one another, to have more patience one with another. Because families are truly the most important thing that we have here on this earth.

Families can be together forever, as we have spoken and sung in that earlier hymn. But for me personally it has rung true in a way that I never knew was possible since losing our son. So let’s see if we actually have this ready. We don’t. We’re going to miss that clip, unfortunately.

I’m not sure if, in the Assembly Hall—is it appropriate to have questions and answers? Okay, I haven’t spoken in the Assembly hall before. We have some extra time—we have about five minutes. Anybody who has watched the show, or who hasn’t—do you have any questions at this point? I want to talk about behind the scenes, how it works, things that you are wondering. That’s one of the things that we tend to transition into when I talk about Relative Race. Anyone have any questions about Relative Race?

Question: Have you been turned down?

Brother Debenham: Yes, in fact, I was just relating to your president here that it happens usually about once a season, that one of the teams that we just love, either we can’t find all their relatives, or they won’t sign a contract. I can tell you that just a week ago, in our upcoming season that we’re getting ready to film in about two and a half months, we had this amazing couple from Seattle, really excited, found the father and a brother. The brother agreed and said, “I’ll speak to my dad.” The next thing we got back was an email, just last week, that said, “The CC on this email is our attorney. We will not be on the show, and if you contact us again, you’ll have to work through our attorney for the repercussions of that. We are formally, legally, letting you know, do not contact us ever again.” That happens occasionally, but only one out of every twenty teams that we research. So yes, we have been turned down.

Question: Can you tell us a bit about the family that ended up joining the Church?

Brother Debenham: That was Rebecca. That’s—I’m not sure what happened to the clip there, but….do we have time? Okay, let’s go ahead and listen to her backstory and what happens when she meets a family member. (Video didn’t work.) Okay, we only work with Macs and you guys have PCs. I’m just saying.

Let me tell you about Rebecca. Rebecca and her husband joined the Church—sadly, since the show, they also divorced. You guys, if you remember the show, he was a border patrol agent. We actually had to move the show around for him because he was going to join the FBI and had to go back for training. We got a call about four or five months after the show from Rebecca, saying, “I’m going through a divorce,” and all of the family that she found was mostly in Idaho and Northern California. She said, “I’m thinking about moving kind of to your neck of the woods.”

My business partner, who had actually been her producer on the show—responsible for that team—walked into the office and said, “Hey, Dan, we’re going to hire Rebecca Hoyt.”

I said, “Rebecca Hoyt. That sounds so familiar.”

He said, “She was on last season’s Relative Race.”

I said, “The young woman from Texas?” He said yeah and I said, “She knows television production?”

He said, “No, but we’re going to hire her. She needs a job.”

Let me tell you, that is probably—in twenty years of having our company, that is one of the best hires we have ever had. That woman is amazing. She was just married and sealed in the temple to her new husband six weeks ago. We filmed it all, and we’re going to have that update on line on BYU-TV. We actually have sixteen updates from sixteen of the teams over the past six seasons, and that is one of them. She married a SkyWest airline pilot, a wonderful man, a wonderful guy.

Any other questions?

Question: If the teams don’t make it all of the ten days so they don’t meet all of their family, can they go back and meet their family that they would have met?

Great question. And like when I speak at RootsTech, that is the first question. Everybody says, “Just tell me, if they don’t get to meet their family on the show, you at least let them know who their family is.”

And I’m like, “Yes, that’s the whole purpose of the show. We don’t say, “Oh, you’re out. And all that family that we found? You don’t get to know anything about them.”

We send them every relative that we found, including if they are not on the show. And sometimes that is 100 relatives. If the relative will allow us to legally share their information, we give them all of the information.

This last season of the show, and the new season that we’re getting ready to film, there is a twist into the format of the show, because when they sign their contract with us, the contestants, it says that I as the host of the show, and the production company, can change anything any time we want. And I do. And it’s all for family. So this last season, for those of you who watched, there was a golden ticket that we hid and they found, and the golden ticket said, “If you have received your third strike, you can use this golden family ticket to meet one more relative.” It says, “You’re out of the race—meaning you’re out of the $50,000 race—but you get to meet family.” So, we have another twist on that coming up this upcoming season. But yes, we give them all of the information. We want them to meet their family.

We have changed the show every season, trying to minimize the amount of time they’re actually racing and maximize the amount of time they have with their family. Because they actually have to spend—not only do they meet the family, they have to spend the night with the family. And that’s been interesting at times as well.

Any other questions?

Question: What inspired you to do this show? Where did it come from?

Great question. We had created an earlier show for the network called Dining with the Dean, an unscripted show. And BYUtv came back to us and said, “You guys know how to do unscripted television really well. Ancestry has come to us, and they’re going to be launching a new division of their company called Ancestry DNA”—that tells you how quickly we become familiar with products and services, because it seems like well, hasn’t that been around forever?—and they said, “Ancestry has asked us if we can create a show that might showcase what would happen if you submit DNA, how you might be able to find family. So, we would like you guys to see if you might be able to create a show for us.”

So I said, “Well, explain DNA and how that works.”

They said, “You spit into a tube, and you send that out to a laboratory that has everybody else that has spit into a tube, and they can quickly see if your DNA matches.”

I remember looking at those executives and saying, “I am so confused. So you want a television show”—they said they wanted it to be an hour—“you want an hour-long television show about people spitting into a tube and finding family.”

They said, “Well, yeah, but you’ve got to figure that out.”

So from that, we came back about two weeks later and said, “Look, we have this concept called The Relative Race.”

And they immediately said, “Can you drop the word “The”?

And we said, “Sure. It’s just a working title.”

They said, “It’s much better for social media.”

I said, “Got it.” And it’s been Relative Race ever since. That was the genesis of Relative Race, was Ancestry asking BYUtv to create a show that would be a compelling show that would showcase what could happen and how you could find family if you submitted DNA.

Ironically, Ancestry distanced themselves from the show after the second season. They told us why—they wanted to show on another network, and our conversation was, “We have a relationship with BYUtv and we want to help them do what they want to do, which is offer quality, award-winning programming that the whole family can enjoy and gather around the TV together, like I used to do as a kid.” We love working with BYUtv, we want to work with BYUtv, and we’re very happy that this show remains on BYUtv. And you can stream it anytime. You don’t have to wait until it goes on the air; you just go to and look up Relative Race. Just Google Relative Race and up will come ways that you can stream it right away.

Yes sir.

Question: (unheard)

Brother Debenham: Locally, BYUtv airs on its educational channel in the state of Utah, on KBYU. But it’s in about 83 million homes, all over the country, and it just depends on what cable or satellite system you have, and the channels vary everywhere.

I think, brothers and sisters, that I have…I’m sorry, one more.

Question: (unheard)

Brother Debenham: We actually like season one the best. They had a transition of people at BYUtv, and season one was kind of proof of concept. We really liked it, and it seemed to go over really well. They removed it. It was done for a very small budget, and I think—I think—they just kind of thought, it’s not the same as the other seasons when the budget changed, and now we’ve got this much more award-nominated show, where season one was a little more of a “let’s kind of see how it might work,” and I think maybe they might be, “Uh, let’s take that off our network.” So that’s why season one is no longer there.

In fact, one of our executive producers at our company, for Christmas, for everybody internally at Lenzworks Productions, had Season One and burned it to a Blu-ray and gave it to all of us so that we would always have Season One that we could watch. So we like Season One as well. Thank you for that question.

Brothers and sisters, I do want to leave with you my testimony. I cannot tell you how deeply my testimony of family has grown since I have been privileged to be a part, a small part, of this show. To see families find each other, to see that moment when they realize they are not alone, when they realize that somebody does love them, that wants them, that is searching for them. I pray, and it’s my testimony, that if we will grow our families, be stronger as families, that that is the greatest happiness that we can know here on this earth. And hopefully we can carry that on afterwards. I’m grateful for that testimony. I’m grateful for my family. I’m humbled to be able to be here with you, and I hope that you will go home and watch Relative Race. I leave those things with you in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.


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