Larry Rifkin believes in 7-foot-tall purple dinosaurs and 6'5" college basketball centers. He can afford to promulgate his unlikely creed: Time has proved him right.
Rifkin, 48, is executive vice president of programming at Connecticut Public Television (CPTV). Nine years ago he rented a video entitled Barney and the Backyard Gang for his daughter Leora, who was four at the time. "I noticed how that video mesmerized my Leora," says Rifkin, who has been with CPTV for 18 years. "I called one of the cocreators, Sheryl Leach, and asked, 'Have you ever thought of putting this on public television?' "
The rest, as they say in broadcasting and paleontology, is prehistory. Three years later Rifkin made another noteworthy find: the Connecticut Huskies' women's basketball team. "We began by broadcasting the 1994 Big East tournament," says Rifkin. "We had the serendipity of Rebecca Lobo and the 35-0 national championship season a year later. Today UConn women's basketball is the most popular PBS program in the nation on a local basis."
The top-ranked Huskies, defending national champs, regularly get seven and eight ratings (each point equals approximately 16,000 viewers) in the Hartford/ New Haven market. (CPTV airs every game that CBS, ESPN or Fox does not.) The next-highest-rated PBS program does well to register a three. Six times in the past two seasons broadcasts of UConn games have ranked among the top three programs in prime time for week. Outside of a Ken Burns documentary, this is unheard of for PBS. "It doesn't matter who the women are playing," says Rifkin, who notes that the Huskies are 124-2 in their seven seasons on CPTV.
What, however, is the value of having a high-rated program on a noncommercial network? "First, we can do pledge drives during timeouts," says Rifkin. On Dec. 5, for example, viewers expressed their "I love you, you love me" relationship with UConn by pledging $24,000 to CPTV during a 77-53 nail-biter against Miami. "Second, the Huskies give us an identity with our viewers."
That's true. At most PBS stations Big Bird is goofy, yellow and nine feet tall. At CPTV the big Bird is a 5'9" junior point guard named Sue.