As Station Responds Aggressively To Funding Woes, Critics Say Its
Local Flavor Is Fading
August 7, 2005
By MIKE SWIFT, Courant Staff Writer
As Connecticut Public Television moved last summer into a new
$12.6 million headquarters bristling with satellite dishes and
digital technology, top managers canceled "Main Street," a local
magazine show, citing a loss of state funding.
To many within the organization, the decision to kill CPTV's most prominent
regularly scheduled local show was a watershed, one that called into question
CPTV's commitment to its viewers. It sparked a flurry of disgruntled e-mails
among staff members that hinted at the discord within CPTV.
"When we ask viewers to be our members, don't we need to entice them
with quality stories that are uniquely Connecticut?" Lisa Simmons,
a senior producer for national programs, wrote in an e-mail that circulated
through CPTV. "I really see this as part of our core mission that we're
"Without [local] programs ... we are no different from any other PBS
station," another staff member wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Courant. "It's
just another reason for people NOT to support CPTV."
The e-mails drew a withering rebuke from one CPTV executive.
"I am thrilled to know how many experts we have at fundraising in
this building - especially from those not directly responsible for raising
funds," wrote Nancy L. Bauer, vice president for sales and corporate
support. "Reality check - it's a tough business."
In a debate that mirrors what's happening
across the country, some local critics say Connecticut Public Broadcasting
Inc. is slowly taking the "public" out
of public television.
From a once-robust menu of regularly scheduled local public affairs programs
in the late 1980s and early 1990s, CPTV has evolved into a producer of children's
programs and documentaries that it airs itself or markets to other public
broadcasters. During the past year, top management acknowledged that even
the flow of documentaries has dropped off.
There have been some notable successes:
CPTV won seven regional Emmy awards for 2004. It has contributed to the
development of six children's series running on national PBS next year,
including "Barney & Friends," but
only one of those programs will actually be made in-house in the
coming year. While ratings for University of Connecticut women's basketball
were down this year, it remains one of the most successful public television
franchises in the country.
"We are opportunistic," said Jerry Franklin, the president and
CEO of CPBI, the parent of Connecticut public television and radio. "We
are more aggressive than most of our colleagues. We hustle. We
But critics, including state officials,
former staff members and unhappy workers within CPTV, say Connecticut's
public television station is shortchanging its responsibility to serve
the public. Even company insiders wonder how a public broadcaster that
has such unique properties as UConn and "Barney" can
be facing such financial issues.
Public television in Connecticut is an expensive pursuit, and CPBI is having
trouble making ends meet. CPBI finished its budget year on June 30 with
a $550,000 operating deficit, even after laying off six employees during
the course of the year.
"It's not a crisis," Franklin said. "It
CPBI executives say the deficit was caused by the higher expenses of running
the larger new building, by the drop in UConn viewers and the corresponding
money they donate and by a slowdown in corporate support. CPBI plans to
borrow as much as $250,000 to tide it over its current financial shortfall,
money that Franklin said the organization hopes to repay in the coming 11
But the organization's cash flow situation
is so tight that this spring it has received "past due" notices for more than $10,000 in basic
services such as electricity, heating and fire alarms. A custodial contractor
who cleaned CPBI's television and radio offices for 14 years canceled its
services last year after CPBI didn't pay its bills for four months, running
up a $6,439 debt before it paid. "You call up, and it's one story after
another," said Dennis Benard, president of Nutmeg Janitorial Services
CPBI executives have notified CPTV union technicians that there will be
layoffs unless they accept a 4.5 percent pay cut and higher health care
contributions and agree to some four-day workweeks. About one-quarter of
CPBI's 94 employees are union members.
Nevertheless, Franklin said, "We're
not going to be eliminating any other positions; we're not taking any
programs off the air."
Independent documentary producers say they often must wait months to be
paid for their work. Many employees say they are dispirited and angry about
the state of the station and its values.
CPTV's "aggressive" and "extreme" use
of on-air fundraising was taking valuable time from other programming,
a consultant warned managers last year. And CPBI is spending a growing
share of its budget on fundraising, while programming has received a shrinking
slice of the budget pie, its tax returns over a six-year period show.
Instead of being a nonprofit television station that draws its support
from fundraising, CPTV has become a fundraiser that happens to produce television,
said Rich Hanley, director of the graduate journalism program at Quinnipiac
"They have it absolutely backward," said Hanley, a former CPTV
employee, and the producer of several Emmy-nominated documentaries that
aired on CPTV. "The only conversation CPTV has with its audience is
when it's asking for money."
Public television was conceived during the 1960s as a quality, taxpayer-funded
alternative to commercial television, a system along the lines of the British
Broadcasting Corp. And for years, PBS' science, news and children's programming
has been the gold standard in American television.
Even public television's most faithful fans, however, say they are concerned
about the future. The proliferation of commercial cable channels, declines
in overall television viewing, a refocusing by corporate sponsors on the
bottom line and funding cuts by hostile politicians have triggered a national
debate about the future of public television. A similar debate may loom
Across the country, many public television
outlets are spending less on local programming, and not just because it's
expensive to make, said Glenda R. Balas, author of a 2003 book, "Recovering a Public Vision for Public
Television." Part of the issue, said Balas, a University of New Mexico
communications professor, is the "incursion" of commercial values
into a medium that was founded as an alternative to commercial
"Programs that draw larger audiences, garner more underwriting support
and position stations as `more professional' are not always the ones that
address local problems and feature the voices of local people," Balas
Many local critics say CPTV is guilty of a similar loss of local focus.
Bob Douglas, an on-air reporter for CPTV
from 1979 to 1994, remembers a time in the 40-year history of public television
in Connecticut that he calls "the golden age," when CPTV made
coverage of the legislature and state politics and public affairs a staple.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, CPTV regularly covered statewide politics,
including gavel-to-gavel coverage of party conventions, live coverage of
the bitter 1991 battle over a state income tax and debates between gubernatorial
and U.S. Senate candidates. At various times, CPTV also offered weekly news
magazine shows, viewer call-in shows and talk shows about local public affairs.
Franklin said the station is trying to
build a $50 million endowment to support programming, including local
shows, and last spring it launched a half-hour weekly interview show, "Front and Center with Ray Hardman." But
apart from that and another weekly talk show about politics and
an occasional political debate, little remains of CPTV's once-extensive
coverage of public affairs.
"I bleed UConn blue with every other basketball nut in the state," Douglas
said. "But I'll tell you, when the jewel in the crown of local programming
is a basketball team, that's a sad state of affairs."
And critics say in-studio talk shows
such as "Front and Center" are
no substitute for the news and feature stories shot on location for programs
such as "Main Street."
"It's just another talking head in the studio," Vic Vincze, a
former CPTV videographer, said of the Hardman show. "It doesn't cost
them anything to do."
Vincze, who was laid off last fall, said he noticed a big drop-off in the
amount of local work being done at the station from when he started in 1998.
"We were shooting maybe three or four documentaries at a time. We
were always out shooting," he said. "When I left, we were doing
one. There's definitely been a slowdown in the local stuff."
Franklin said the lack of money - specifically state money - is the cause
of the public affairs cutback.
"We would love to do that again," Franklin said. "But
there simply is no funding for it now."
In the late 1980s, CPBI received more than $1 million a year in state money,
a significant part of public television revenues at that time. Since last
year, however, CPBI's operating grants have been cut entirely from the state
budget, though it still receives about $1.6 million a year in federal money.
Franklin and other public television executives say the station decided
viewers were better served by a CPTV that produced a limited number of high-impact
documentaries, such as a documentary this spring on teenage drivers, rather
than a block of regularly scheduled local programs each night.
CPTV produced fewer local documentaries in the past year because of the
extended absence of a key executive who headed the production of local documentaries.
That drought is over, Franklin said.
He said CPTV is working on an array of local documentaries and
doing a series on the needs of the elderly in this state. We've
got a series with UConn focusing on mental health. Now those aren't
sexy series, those aren't series that another television station would do
and put them on in prime time, but we think those are great series for public
television to do."
Franklin said CPTV's financial situation limits it to programs that can
attract sponsor revenue.
"`Main Street' was a beautiful program.
But we couldn't sell it. The underwriting folks couldn't sell it, nor
could we get membership income. This seems a little crass, but we live
in more of a marketplace environment now."
That marketplace mentality, however, hurt CPTV's standing with several
key legislators. When the state found itself in a budget crisis and needed
to make large spending cuts in recent years, neither then-Gov. John G. Rowland's
administration nor Democratic leaders saw any reason to back public funding
for CPTV, said officials from both groups.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Sullivan, then president pro tem of the state Senate, was
a strong supporter of CTN, the Connecticut Network, which telecasts events
from the Capitol. And Marc Ryan, Rowland's budget chief, said in past discussions
with reporters that with the state facing tough budget decisions, it was
relatively easy to cut CPTV. There was no one on either side of the aisle
willing to stand up for its funding.
Franklin and CPTV also failed this year in overtures to the Rell administration
for a restoration of operating grants, although the broadcaster hopes to
receive $1 million in state bond money to replace two aging analog television
Drive For Cash
CPBI spent 84 percent of its budget, about $18.3 million, on television
in 2004, with the balance of its $21.9 million budget going to its radio
operation, WNPR. While CPTV spends much less than kingpin public television
stations in Boston or New York, it spends significantly more than many stations
in markets of similar size to Hartford-New Haven. Radio receives just a
fraction of CPBI's budget, but it also receives little or none of the criticism
CPTV gets for a lack of local programming.
Anyone who contributes money to public television is familiar with the
zeal with which CPTV pursues donations. CPBI hired four separate outside
fundraising companies, and spent more than $600,000 on its extensive telemarketing
and direct-mail fundraising operations in the year ending June 30, 2004.
That is at least a third more - and in some cases many times more - than
the amount spent on professional fundraising by many public broadcasters
in similar-size markets, including Pittsburgh; Portland, Ore.; Indianapolis;
and Nashville, according to their federal tax returns.
"When you compare that to other public broadcasting licensees, it
may appear high, but in fairness, you should take into consideration several
unique factors about our market and fundraising strategy," said Meg
Sakellarides, the chief financial officer for CPBI.
CPBI, for example, must compete in fundraising with major public broadcasters
in neighboring states whose signals overlap into Connecticut, including
behemoths such as WNET in New York City and WGBH in Boston.
And Connecticut public television pursues a more costly strategy to raise
money, using an outside telemarketing company to seek donations. That strategy,
however, brought in nearly $8 million in donations last year, Sakellarides
said. The overall amount of money CPBI spends to raise money is in line
with industry standards, Franklin said.
Nevertheless, a growing share of the budget for public radio and television
in Connecticut has been going to fundraising. In 1998, CPBI spent 79 cents
of every budget dollar on programming and about 11 cents on fundraising.
In 2004, CPBI spent 67 cents on programming and 16 cents on fundraising.
Spending for fundraising grew by 29 percent between 1998 and 2004; spending
for programs dropped by 25 percent, according to the organization's tax
A 2004 internal
report found that CPTV was engaged in a "short-term
pursuit of cash through aggressive pledging and underwriting spot
sales at the expense of building viewership."
"A poignant example of this," said
the consultant, the Willis Group of Medford, Mass., is the intensive
on-air fundraising CPTV does after UConn basketball.
"It is tempting to try and exploit this [UConn] audience for all the
pledging that can be wrung from them," the Willis report said. By emphasizing
fundraising, CPTV misses the chance to turn UConn fans into regular
viewers by scheduling other programming around the games, the study
Franklin said fundraising around popular shows such as UConn basketball
is a necessary evil.
"We didn't design this system. As you know, we can't engage in commercials," he
said. "It's what we have to do."
CPBI executives say the swing in spending from programming to fundraising
is a cyclical - and temporary - shift.
"On average, our fundraising costs have increased roughly 4 percent
per year, which is essentially close to [the consumer price index], which
seems reasonable," Sakellarides said. "Our drop-off in programming
costs directly results from the cyclical nature of the national
programming business. For example, in the early years of `Barney,'
we enjoyed all production, all underwriting and all ancillary product sales
as part of our accounting, but now, with `Barney' as a mature property,
little revenue comes to us."
Many familiar with CPBI, including current and former employees,
say the drive for cash has shaped CPBI's values, in ways both large and
"It's changed from the programming side making decisions on things
to the sales department making decisions on things," said Alan Taylor,
an editor who was laid off late last year after 15 years at CPTV.
"The power in that organization is with the people who bring in the
money," said one former public broadcasting executive, who spoke anonymously
because of fears of retribution from Franklin. "If you're the producer,
if you're making content, you have much less power than the people
who are bringing in money."
Vincze remembers working at one on-air
funding drive that had hit its goal and hearing station executives through
his earpiece instructing the on-air "talent" not
to tell CPTV viewers that the fundraising goal had been met. Other
technicians told him that it had happened before.
Franklin said that instruction could have been the result of confusion
due to an incoming volley of telephone calls at the end of a fundraising
"It's not our policy to instruct on-air talent to give that kind of
disinformation," he said.
Within the walls at 1049 Asylum Ave.
in Hartford, the relationship between management and many rank-and-file
employees has grown toxic, numerous employees said in interviews in recent
months. Many workers believe "the sixth
floor" - internal code for Franklin and other managers who work at
the top of the new headquarters - has lost touch with those who
produce television and radio programming in the rest of the building. Employees
say the chronic warnings from management about impending fiscal
disaster have taken a toll on morale.
"There's a constant feeling of crisis," Taylor said. "It's
like a ship that is always going down, but never really sinks.
But when you look at it, the upper-level management people all are doing
Many CPTV workers repeat the belief that management is profiting to the
detriment of the organization.
For example, while Franklin received
the use of a new $36,000 Ford SUV from CPTV, camera crews had to use a
battered GMC van with 180,000 miles on it to get to shoots, Vincze said.
Many employees noticed that Franklin's SUV came with a trailer hitch,
and wondered about the business need for a trailer hitch, while camera
crews had to make do with a vehicle they nicknamed the "Crack Van."
Nevertheless, Taylor said most considered
it "a privilege" to
work in public television. Few leave CPTV voluntarily, he said.
"I had a good run of work there," Taylor said. "I'm
just sorry it's over."
Quinnipiac University's Hanley said CPTV has a bigger problem - relevancy.
Viewers would be better served, he said,
if CPTV operated from a smaller headquarters and spent the $10 million
it earned on the sale of its old building to Trinity College last year
on programming instead. He calls the big, new headquarters "a physical manifestation of the distance CPTV
has from its audience," saying that public television needs to have
a conversation with its audience that doesn't involve raising money.
"None of that goes on. It's all about the giving; it's all about the
giving; it's all about the giving," Hanley said. "And what are
you giving back to us?"
TOMORROW: Some CPTV critics see a pattern in which the company's president
has ceded editorial control to sponsors.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at