With the UConn women out of the picture, Connecticut Public Television's future is unclear

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University ofConnecticut women's basketballwas, in the words of one expert, Connecticut Public Television's "tent pole" — the central, essential support for the whole shebang.

It defined CPTV in this state for nearly two decades. It appealed to the young, the twenty-somethings, and the baby boomers. It brought in money. Lots and lots of money from corporate sponsors and private donors.

Now UConn women's basketball is gone from CPTV, and the general consensus is there's nothing that can possibly replace it. Not another purple dinosaur, not some new scientific miniseries, not any British mystery series or historical romance.

"I don't think you'll ever have that many eyeballs again," laments Larry Rifkin, who served as CPTV's senior programming executive for 25 years. "It became our identity."

UConn departed on a quest to become the Notre Dame of women's basketball, a national force with a national following.

CPTV is on a quest to survive.

There are plenty of folks around who are convinced that it will, in one form or another. The trouble is, no one's quite certain what public broadcasting will look like in Connecticut or anywhere else down the line.

Last week, the station laid off four people from the production side. Carol Sisco, a director and vice president at CPTV, says the move was forced by unexpected cost increases involving PBS and NPR programming. "Those were larger than we expected."

Sisco says no other layoffs are being planned.

"We've been around for 50 years," Sisco says, noting Connecticut Public Broadcasting will hit its half-century mark in October. "We plan to continue to provide the services as we've always done," she says, adding that CPTV officials do have a strategy in place to keep the station going.

But the profitable "beg-a-thons" that CPTV linked to those UConn games are now history, and the worry is contributions will nosedive, leading to more cutbacks. Station officials say corporate sponsorships related to women's basketball amounted to about $1.1 million a year, and individual donations linked to the games brought in another $850,000 annually.

There were some big fees and production costs involved with those games, totalling at least $1.5 million a year, so the net loss in revenue may only be $350,000 or $400,000. Put that way it doesn't sound quite so bad, except that we're talking about a total CPTV annual budget of just $19 million.

Unfortunately, this hammer blow has hit Connecticut Public Broadcasting at a time when public stations across the nation are staggering through an economic and technological morass.

Cable has stolen much of its audience, whether you're talking about cooking shows or home improvement or political talking heads. "People went off and made whole channels out of what we started," says Rifkin.

There's talk of public stations merging, of finding new revenue streams to replace what's been lost (Connecticut ended its $1 million annual state grant years ago), and of even deeper staff and programming cuts.

Sisco says CPTV is moving forward with new broadcasting ventures like televising Connecticut Sun games from the women's pro league, and high school and other college sports, and an expanded educational experiment called the Journalism and Media Academy for high school seniors.

Whether anything like that, or new national programing ventures, can work well enough to offset the losses involved with those UConn games is unknown.

"It's a very tough environment," says Willis Peligian, a Massachusetts-based media consultant who's worked with numerous public stations, including CPTV. "You'd be hard-pressed to find any public broadcasting operators who would say they've figured it out."

Connecticut Public Broadcasting did have other very popular successes. The station produced "Barney & Friends," about a big purple dinosaur — a huge hit with the kiddies — and had another winner with a scientific series narrated by Alan Alda.

The trouble was that nothing could compare with that UConn franchise, which was lost in early May when university officials decided to award the broadcast rights to the women's basketball games to New York-based SNY.

For a long time, Connecticut public broadcasting executives found that the popularity of UConn women's basketball was the answer to an awful lot of their questions. It was an amazing source of viewers of all ages and that translated to high visibility and mucho contributions, particularly as those talented teams kept winning, including seven national championships.

Ongoing financial problems resulted in CPTV cutting back on lots of its local political and magazine shows even as its commitment to women's basketball was growing. Those contracts with UConn were very costly for an operation running on an annual budget of close to $20 million.

"It was an expensive proposition for CPTV," says Rifkin. "We turned ourselves into a sports station," he explains, and that required mobilizing almost everyone on staff to do something UConn related. The organization's stationery was even emblazoned with the slogan, "The Home of UConn Women's Basketball."

The public station's contract with UConn was up for renewal this year, and the state Attorney General's Office ruled that it should be put out for competitive bids.

CPTV's final bid was $4.537 million for four years, and it wasn't enough. The New York-based cable channel SNY took the rights for $4.55 million — a difference of only $13,000. Jerry Franklin, president and CEO of Connecticut Public Broadcasting, complained that UConn never even gave his station the chance to match SNY's bid.

"I just got up and got the UConn tread marks off my back," a bitter Franklin told the Connecticut Post last month after it was announced that SNY had won.

But it really wasn't about the money for UConn. It was about the 14 million viewers and the national exposure SNY could provide the university's women's basketball program.

Rich Hanley, an associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University and an independent producer of documentaries that have aired on CPTV, believes it was inevitable the public station would eventually lose the UConn deal. He insists the point of no return was reached long ago when the university and state lawmakers decided UConn should "dive headlong into big-time college sports."

As a national basketball powerhouse, coach Gino Auriemma's program recruits nationally and hungers for the increased national exposure SNY can offer. He told The New London Day that the SNY contract could make UConn "the women's basketball equivalent of Notre Dame," a sports phenomenon bigger than any particular league or region.

"We made CPTV the most watched public broadcasting station in America, and the most profitable," Auriemma told Day columnist Mike DiMauro. "Otherwise, they wouldn't have been able to pay us what they paid us."

He made it clear that the relationship with CPTV just wasn't going to have a future, no matter how great it had been in the past. "It just wasn't going to be possible, no matter what CPTV did," he said. "This is strictly about the exposure of UConn women's basketball. It's one million homes [with CPTV] vs. 14 million [with SNY]."

Rifkin doesn't think UConn's departure was inevitable. He points out that UConn's women won seven national championships during the CPTV years, suggesting Auriemma didn't seem to have that much trouble attracting talent while his games were being broadcast on Connecticut's public station.

The UConn deal could be a big gamble for SNY, Rifkin says. "I never thought SNY would put up this kind of money," he adds. There's no certainty cable viewers in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere will be as devoted as Connecticut fans, according to Rifkin.

"I don't think anyone is going to get the kind of value that CPTV got out of it," he says.

Those UConn games (CPTV has broadcast more than 400 of them since 1994) were a linchpin in their fundraising drives. And it was more than the games, with season-ending documentaries that were also popular.

"This was a sustained winter activity, week after week after week," explains Hanley, who says all of it was "wrapped in a fundraising envelope."

There were warnings years ago that depending too much on that one amazing vehicle could lead to trouble.

In 2004, Peligian conducted an internal review of CPTV's fundraising policies, and his report caused quite a stir when it was leaked to the Hartford Courant.

In it, Peligian concluded the station had succumbed to a "short-term pursuit of cash through aggressive pledging and underwriting spot sales at the expense of building viewership."

"It is tempting to try and exploit this [UConn] audience for all the pledging that can be wrung from them," Peligian warned back then.

"My report emphasized how risky it was to have so much riding on a single source of revenue," Peligian said in a recent interview.

Connecticut Public Broadcasting Inc. "development expenses," including membership/pledge drives and corporate underwriting, totalled 20.9 percent of its spending budget in the 2010 fiscal year – up from about 16 percent back in 2004.

At last count, according to the station's website, CPTV was averaging about 450,000 viewers per week. (WNPR, the broadcast unit's radio arm was bringing in an estimated 240,000 listeners each week.)

What happens next, without the UConn women's games, is anything but clear.

Station officials like Sisco don't try to downplay the loss of the UConn franchise. "We recognize this move with UConn will have an impact," she says.

Rifkin and Peligian agree that it's likely to take at least a year before anyone knows for sure what's going to happen to CPTV viewership and fundraising. Rifkin says there's likely to be a temporary wave of viewer sympathy and residual financial support for CPTV.

"I don't think the greatest impact will take place this year," Rifkin says. "I think it will be in the trail years."

Crunch time will come when those basketball fans drift away to SNY and don't come back; and when the corporate sponsors move their money along to some other, more popular venue.

"That is a possibility that we've discussed," Sisco says of future viewer and contribution losses, "but it's really hard to predict." She and other CPTV folks are hoping real hard that they can find a way to keep at least a portion of those UConn basketball fans. Others aren't so optimistic.

"You're talking about taking away a mainstay of this public television station," Rifkin says sadly.

"It drew in the highest audiences, the most pledges, and it extended across generations," says Hanley.

Hanley's conclusion is grim: "I do think it will dramatically — if not radically — change the organization."

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