CPTV Celebrates 50 Years: Present at the Creation
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The ‘Elvis Years’ (the ’90s-’00s)
Once Jerry Franklin and Larry Rifkin demonstrated they could up the ante successfully on local programming, it was time to tackle the national market. Little did they know they’d have a phenom on their hands, one that would conquer the world . . . in a purple dinosaur suit. Two years later, even he would be eclipsed—by a team of extraordinary college women in basketball uniforms, who enjoyed a phenomenal 18-year love affair with Connecticut, and yes, the entire world of sports fans.
Larry Rifkin: There was a certain amount of temerity in thinking that we had any business trying to be national producers, because we had no money and couldn’t risk a lot of money. There were many stations—in Pittsburgh in particular—that had gone broke trying to be a national player. But I knew that PBS was looking for children’s programming beyond Fred Rogers and “Sesame Street.” And they encouraged us to come up with ideas.
Jerry Franklin: We sit here in Connecticut, on this little piece of geography between two giants of the industry: WGBH, which we lovingly refer to as “the mother church,” and WNET in New York. At the time, those two produced nearly 80 percent of national PBS programming. But then we got the opportunity to work with a couple of McKinsey & Co. consultants, who came to our little building for three or four months and studied how we might get into the national market. One of the things they said was, “Be smart and strategic. You don’t have the resources to develop a national project from the ground up. You need to find a project that’s already halfway up the food chain.” So that’s what we did.
Larry Rifkin: On Super Bowl Sunday in 1991, I went to a Blockbuster Video across the street with my daughter, Leora, who was 3 or 4 at the time, and she picked up this video, “Barney and the Backyard Gang.” And she watched it incessantly. I thought, “What is this?” I could see it had elements—for one, a lead character that wasn’t as neurotic as Big Bird—that I thought could be developed, though it wasn’t as well-produced as it might have been.
Jerry Franklin: Larry, who was head of programming at that point, brought the video in the next day and said, “Why don’t you take this home and have your son Alex look at it?” And my son was mesmerized by it. Ultimately, we circulated it to all the CPTV employees with preschoolers. The reaction was pretty much unanimous: Adults didn’t like the show, but kids loved it. On the back of the video box there was a phone number for producer Sheryl Leach in Plano, Texas—she was operating out of her home. We got her on the phone, and said we’d love to talk to you about bringing Barney to television. We knew the program needed to be dressed up, so we borrowed $350,000 and sent some cameras to her home in Texas.
Sheryl Leach (co-producer of “Barney and Friends”): Larry’s first words to me were, “Have you ever considered PBS?” I remember I said, “How does one do that?” It happened to be that particular year that PBS decided to boost their children’s programming block—they wanted to fund and test three programs, and they would pick the top two. The others were “Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop” and “Shining Time Station.” So representatives from PBS in Washington, D.C., came to Texas, to look at our facility and see what we had done. By that time, our videos had gone platinum and we were featured in programs on the Disney Channel. PBS decided to order 40 shows. And from the day of our debut, which I think was April 2, 1992, we were No. 1 in the ratings.
Larry Rifkin: Within weeks, PBS told us they were discontinuing our funding.
Sheryl Leach: We found out during our big wrap party, after everyone had given 150 percent. So we did a letter-writing campaign to all the affiliates and said, “Did you know that Barney is being defunded?”
Larry Rifkin: I really went on a campaign, like a politician trying to win votes. We raised $50,000 in pledge contributions just by bringing Barney into the studio live one morning. We brought him to the Hartford Civic Center; it was like Beatlemania.
Donna Collins (CPTV executive, 1987-2000): We invited families to a meet-and-greet with Barney. It was supposd to be a casual thing, like visiting Santa in a store at Christmastime. But by the time we left to go to the Civic Center, there was a traffic jam in downtown Hartford. There was a line outside the Civic Center and around the block. We were blown away. And the line kept coming. We had crowd-control issues—we just weren’t prepared. Barney said, “We’re not leaving until everyone gets a photo,” because the idea was you get your picture taken with him. His costume at that point wasn’t ventilated very well; we kept having to take him to the men’s room to start fanning him.
Sheryl Leach: This all took place a month or so before June, when PBS had its annual affiliates meeting. And they arrived furious, because Barney was their No. 1 show.
Larry Rifkin: For the first time, PBS had a designated chief programming officer that they sent to the meeting. She heard, loud and clear, that this decision would not stand. It was like an insurrection. By the end of the meeting, she said, “I will renegotiate with CPTV.” That was remarkable; nothing like it has happened since.
Larry Rifkin: UConn women's basketball was really, in many ways, the biggest thing we ever did. I don't think there's ever been a franchise in the history of public television that was as successful for as long as that was, on so many levels, in redefining a television station in relationship to its audience.
Arthur Diedrick: When we decided to broadcast UConn women's basketball, in 1994, at first people did ask why: "Who's going to watch that?"
Jerry Franklin: We were the first public TV channel to broadcast women's tennis, long before there was any sports channel. It was Fred Jelsey, late Democratic state representative from Enfield and chairman of the state legislature's bonding committee, who got us to consider basketball. I'd been courting Fred because we'd received some state bonding funds over the years. One day, Larry and I were in his office, and Fred said, "Jerry, have you ever seen the UConn girls play basketball?" I said, "No, I haven't." And he kind of challenged us to pay attention. I think Larry was the first to check them out, and he came back saying, "Let's put them on air." He hired some people and put together a broadcast team, and we went to Bob Fiondella, CEO at Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance in Hartford, because we needed some money. We needed a remote truck—you can't just cover a basketball game with a couple of stationary cameras. I knew Bob had identified the women's market as one of Phoenix's most desired. So they invested $25,000 that first season, which gave us the funding to rent a truck. That became the most popular program on any public television station. The ratings were just phenomenal. For 18 years, that was a wonderful love affair we had with UConn.
Larry Rifkin: Fred Jelsey said to Jerry, "There's this phenomenon building." There was this Rebecca Lobo; everybody had heard about her, but no one had seen her other than in a minute-long clip here and there. I told Jerry, "I've been following this a little bit; I think he's right." But sports wasn't really CPTV's milieu, even though we'd aired broadcasts in the past. So we got together with UConn and decided to try it out. All of a sudden, the phones started ringing and they never stopped, through 2012. It was a journey like no other.
Donna Collins: I got a call on a Thursday morning in my office from Jerry and Larry, who said, "We just got an opportunity to pick up a game from New England Sports Network, a UConn Women's basketball game. You know, they're in the Sweet 16." I had no idea what they were talking about, but I was handed the ball and told to run with it. I said, "When's the game?" They said, "Tomorrow night." I got the sales team together, and we had to jump on the phone and call people. And they were great. Bob Fiondella at Phoenix was the first person we called, because he was a fan. On Saturday, all the media could talk about was being able to see that game. Monday morning I went to work, and there was the red flashing light on my phone from Jerry. No we needed to raise more money because UConn was going into the Big 8. So we did these drives three times; then they went on to the Big East.
Jay Whitsett: I was one of the first people who put together a technical crew for women's basketball. I had all these public television people, and I really needed sports people. I needed camera experts; I needed people who knew how to do sports audio. Everyone who had done sports programming for CPTV in the past had moved on. Now, all I had was "artistes." So, we leased a truck and brought in freelancers, and put together a crew using them. Our producer and director were freelance, as were the people who did replays and the main audio.
Larry Rifkin: The next year was UConn's 35-0 season. We had no contract, we just aired 11 games, and we ended up in a parade at the end of the year, getting adulation that no local station or local broadcaster has ever gotten. Jerry and I were like, "This is amazing. This is what you work your whole career to feel, like you've really made a difference in people's lives."
Jerry Franklin: People said, "Gee, why isn't it Channel 3?" because they have this huge sports department. But it wasn't; it was us. I think it goes back to the opportunistic nature of who we are—we love to follow our hunches. Larry Rifkin led us down the Barney trail, and I thought he would be a good choice to lead us into women's basketball. Believe me, the other local stations started watching. Many of the general managers of those stations had never been to Storrs. After they saw what was going on, they all wanted to partner with us. The first year, we didn't have to pay UConn. But the next year, they recognized how hot this property was, and told us, "You're going to have to pay for the broadcast rights." So we thought we'd need a commercial partner to help, because we didn't know if we could raise enough membership income or corporate income.
Larry Rifkin: In 1996, UConn put out an RFP. Jerry thought they wanted us to partner with a commercial station. I went to talk to all those guys, came back and said, "If we don't do this alone, it will lose all it's pledge and membership value. Because even if these guys broadcast three games and we're doing 30, it'll look like we're doing three and they're doing 30. It will cease being unique to CPTV." And Jerry agreed to go it alone.
Jerry Franklin: We had partnership bids from Channel 3, Channel 8 and Channel 30—they all wanted to partner with us. But Larry and I made a gutsy call not to partner with any of them. Then we realized we would have to compete with these guys; they would put in their own bids. And some did, but they couldn't do what we said we'd do, which was broadcast every single game. We would interrupt our schedule to accommodate them; we would not tape delay. We knew the others couldn't do that. We could, but we took some flak. You interrupt "Masterpiece Theatre" for basketball, and whoa—that was a big deal. I didn't know whether I could survive that.
Donna Collins: Now we needed to raise a significant amount of money, to be able to cover the rights fees and production costs. There were huge production costs—we need to raise $1 million for that. So we went back to the logical corporate partners, and they really stepped up, particularly Bob Fiondella. We were looking for "Team Partners," and when we went to him, he offered to be a "Team Captain." CPTV put the UConn women's team on the map, and the team put CPTV on the map. It was the finest example of win-win. And the corporate community found a marketplace that was unique, through which they could express their corporate responsibility and commitment to the community, while the people of Connecticut got to watch and came to love these athlete-scholars. So it really was a win-win-win-win.
Coleman Levy: In reality, the commercial stations couldn't have covered women's basketball. If you're playing a game on Thursday night at 9 and "Seinfeld" is supposed to be on, you can't preempt "Seinfeld." So in many ways, the networks couldn't accommodate the schedule—the ones who could were the cable networks, like ESPN. So over time, the deal changed because all of the national broadcasts featuring UConn preempted CPTV. If the game was on CBS on Saturday afternoon, it wasn't going to be one CPTV. If it was a Big East game on ESPN, it wouldn't be on CPTV. And that's part of the contract CPTV was aware of—it became less exclusive once women's basketball started to rise. But in the beginning, no one understood women's basketball. And if UConn hadn't won that first game CPTV aired, it would have been nonexistent.
Donna Collins: The UConn Women were the only collegiate women's team to have a TV schedule. And the partnership went beyond basketball. We also created and ran interstitial programming about UConn, so it was an integrated presentation. Many have said that that really paved the way for the success of the university's UConn 2000 fund-raising initiative. Ultimately, the visibility and popularity of the games also paved the way for the formation of the WNBA. And basketball was a very big driver of CPTV membership—both basketball and Barney helped us build our own fan base apart from PBS.
Sharon Blair: I was very proud of UConn Women's Basketball for no other reason than my past as a high school basketball player in Arkansas. That made a huge name for CPTV in Connecticut. And in a professional sense, outside of Connecticut—I can guarantee that a lot of people who moved on have it on their résumé. It was an incredibly important thing to the visibility and financial support of CPTV over the last 10 or 12 years. I mourn the loss of that on behalf of the network.
Frank Donovan: I believe that UConn did a terrible disservice to CPTV, and also its fans, by not staying with the network—or even letting them have a second shot at meeting the winning bid. After 18 years! No one gave a darn about UConn or the women's basketball team until it was on CPTV. I think the school did itself a disservice, too—I don't watch the games any more.
Donna Collins: I think CPTV's loss of the UConn basketball contract was like losing a best friend, or breaking up a family. Was it the right or wrong decision for UConn? I really can't say. I think that the new packaging is pretty dynamic, but watching it on SNY, it doesn't quite look like my UConn women anymore. From the perspective of the UConn sports program, it was probably a good way to broaden their exposure. From a local point of view, I think that there's something missing for all of us. I think Connecticut was broken by it.
Arthur Diedrick: Losing the basketball franchise has been a blow, but not a fatal blow. I think we're all disappointed, because we felt so close to UConn and worked so well with them. The good news is that we're going to be working with UConn on other sports activities—whether baseball, field hockey or lacrosse—with our new cable network, CPTV Sports. CPTV Sports also broadcasts high school football from around the state, which has a good following, and we're going to be working with the U.S. Army on sports broadcasting. It's going to take a few more years to really establish the franchise.
Want more? We'll be posting an even bigger expansion of CPTV's oral history in June, to herald the network's 50th anniversary gala June 8 at the Hartford Marriott. Stay tuned . . .