CPTV Celebrates 50 Years: Present at the Creation
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Finding a Voice (the 1970s-’90s)
Once WEDH’s cameras went mobile, its local programming possibilities grew in sophistication. The station had always been ambitious, presenting documentaries like “Older than the Nation” (a salute to the Hartford Courant’s 200th anniversary) and the series “Metropolis: Hartford,” a local look at the effects of urbanization (and a companion piece to WNET’s nationally focused “Metropolis: Creator or Destroyer?”) in 1964. The ’60s also featured such in-studio shows as the local talk show “Point of View” and “Variations,” a literary series hosted by Trinity professor John Dando. By 1971, the CETC network had adopted a new moniker—Connecticut Public Television (CPTV)—and moved into new headquarters. It would complete the decade with a handful of local programming awards and regional Emmy nominations, particularly for “Mundo Real,” the first TV series to star a Puerto Rican family (and the first to broadcast in both Spanish and English). In the decades that followed, spurred on by the 1985 arrival of new CPTV President-CEO Jerry Franklin, CPTV aired a variety of highly regarded documentaries (some presented nationally through the PBS network), as well as series like Faith Middleton’s “Sunday Drive” (produced at WEDY in New Haven) and “Scientific American Frontiers,” that raised the network’s Emmy count and paved the way for greater successes to come. And its statewide viewership would receive a boost from a surprising, yet totally appropriate, partner.
Jay Whitsett (CPTV executive, 1974-2009): I arrived at CPTV right out of Syracuse University and got a job as production associate, doing both technical and creative work. Before long, I started to feel like I wanted more. So I applied for a minority training grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which stipulated that I had to produce and direct, and at the end of the grant period, CPTV had the right to decide to keep me on. So, around that time, I helped develop a show called “Lookin’ Better.” The point was to show how minorities overcame obstacles to get where they are, and to feature women of all color. Our first guest was Rachel Robinson. We also had Wilma Rudolph and the first female cadet at the Coast Guard Academy. The show turned out to be the most popular I’ve ever done in television.
Andrea Hanson (CPTV executive, 1977-2002): I was in charge of the program schedule, which meant integrating the national programs that came from PBS with our local programs, and then acquiring other shows from independent producers and American Public Television in Boston. The Connecticut audience was pretty traditional in that they really loved the national series, like “Masterpiece Theatre,” so if you wanted a local program to shine, you scheduled it near one of those shows. Any program that had to do with Connecticut history was a big draw. I worked closely with a local producer named Rich Hanley, who’s now a professor at Quinnipiac University—he created a show called “Remember When,” all about things in Connecticut that aren’t there any more. CPTV ran and reran it because people just loved it.
Peter Kelley (CPTV advisory board, 1971-present): In the 1970s, CPTV produced a phenomenal drama series called “Mundo Real,” which was the everyday story of a Puerto Rican family. And it completely failed, for the simple reason that Hartford’s Puerto Rican community was scattered all over the place at the time; the audience just wasn’t there. But I remember we were very proud of it. We were way ahead of ourselves.
Andrea Hanson: Back in the day, we did episodes of “Theater in America” and “American Playhouse,” which were WNET series, but a lot of the shows were actually produced at the CPTV studios in Hartford—it was cheaper to do them here because of all the union considerations in New York. We had some big stars come through, like Meryl Streep, when she was very young, in “Uncommon Women and Others,” and Richard Thomas, Swoosie Kurtz and Jeff Daniels in “Fifth of July.” It was a wonderful experience for the staff, because these New York directors would come in and our cameramen and production assistants got to work with them.
Sharon Blair (CPTV executive, 1978-2000): I think for the first few years of presenting national programming, we made it possible for independent producers who were not involved with PBS to get aired nationally—thanks to companies like United Technologies (UTC), who already had arrangements with these producers. One was a guy named David Hoffman, who had a company named Varied Directions in Camden, Maine. I think the first thing David produced with UTC money that went on to PBS was called “Eisenstadt: Germany.” We developed a relationship with David that led to programs that ranged greatly in content; they were incredibly interesting documentaries.
David Hoffman (Varied Directions, youtube.com/allinaday): UTC’s chairman and CEO at the time, Harry Gray, had a vision for how to communicate with the corporation’s target customers, the biggest ones being the military, the U.S. government and the governments of Germany and Japan. He used me as a documentary filmmaker to tell stories that UTC believed would reach this target audience through public television. I came up with the idea of approaching CPTV—it was small and local—rather than going directly to PBS. So I went in and met with Sharon Blair and Paul Taff. They were very excited. They said, “What do you need from us?” I said, “What I really need is for you to introduce the programs to the national system, and to publicize them.” Which they did. CPTV was not known at the time as a producing station, like New York, Washington or Boston. But they learned the national system and became part of it; we worked over a six-year period doing 13 or 14 films for PBS.
Larry Rifkin (CPTV executive, 1982-2009): Our first major national producing project was a show Sharon and Jerry bid for in 1985, called “Tennesee Ernie Ford’s America.” We went down to Nashville, and we had Marilyn McCoo and the Gatlin Brothers and Shirley Jones. That was big.
Arthur Diedrick (Current chair, CPTV advisory board, 2002-present): As chairman of Connecticut Magazine in the ’80s, I was very actively involved with having the CPTV Guide inserted in the magazine. I thinked it worked very well, because Connecticut Public Broadcasting still did not have a lot of member-supporters in the Fairfield County area, and they had a tremendous amount of support up in the Hartford area. The opposite was true for the magazine. So it resulted in a mutually beneficial relationship—through its pledge drives, CPTV delivered about 40,000 of the 90,000 circulation the magazine currently enjoys, and we delivered the guide to those people who had previously not been aware of CPTV. It’s been a good marriage.
Jay Whitsett: Larry Rifkin became vice president of programming, and made me senior producer-director. He said, “I want to bring in fresh talent. I want to bring in new writers and see if they can be TV producers.” This was what we called our “grand experiment.” One day, in came Andrew Philemon Jones, the guy who tried to start a movement for the secession of Boston’s African-American neighborhoods from the city. He was a very smart guy who had worked for ABC News, but hadn’t done anything long-form. And he pitches this idea to Larry: He wants to hitchhike from Mass Avenue in Boston to San Francisco, and call it “Thumbs Across America: A Black Man’s Odyssey.” If it wasn’t for me, he would have given up in Oregon. He came back, and I sat in on every one of his editing sessions. We argued a lot. I felt sorry for him—he’d go into the studio and play his violin with the lights out.
Larry Rifkin: I had started at CPTV in public relations. Then Jerry Franklin became president and CEO and said to me, “Gee, you seem to know a lot about Connecticut. I need someone to jump-start our local programming efforts.” I think the culmination of our push for original programming came in 1989, when we went to Boston for the regional Emmys and stunned the Boston community by winning five Emmys, the most of anyone that night, including one for “Thumbs Across America.”
Faith Middleton (CPTV program host): I did three different series for CPTV, starting in 1989. “Sunday Drive” was meant, in a Charles Kuralt-y way, to illustrate the character and creativity of Connecticut people, in cities and rural towns. My favorite show featured a dog in Madison named Boomer. He was a golden retriever who had developed a habit of running from the top of his house down a slope in the back yard—his family lived on a lake—running across the dock and leaping into the water at full speed. Then he’d swim out to an inner tube, splashing like a kid, climb on, and when he was comfortable, fall asleep and just float. He did it over and over again. Of all the pieces I did for the series, nothing got as much reaction.
John Angier (Chedd-Angier Productions): The way “Scientific American Frontiers” happened in 1990 was really by chance. GTE, headquartered in Stamford, became the corporate underwriter for the series. Because they were Connecticut-based, they were interested in working with a local TV network. So we made arrangements for the show to be channeled through CPTV on its way to national broadcast by PBS. Getting Alan Alda as host was a total piece of luck. We just wrote him a letter. And it turned out he was a very keen science guy and had been all his life. He wanted to be more actively involved than the average celebrity host, so we said “Okay, let’s see how that goes.” Somewhat to his surprise and ours, he was great at it. He started coming to the location shoots and brought along his sense of humor, which was very sharp and impressive.
Jerry Franklin (President-CEO of Connecticut Public Broadcasting, 1985-present): Alda devoted 10 years of his life to the show, and we paid him practically nothing. He said, “This is so important, what you’re doing; we must use television to teach science.” The physicists, astronomers and doctors with whom he’d talk were amazed at the depth of his knowledge. He could actually engage with the greatest scientific minds, and it was amazing to watch that work.