NBC Sports Is Latest In Long List Of Media Companies Putting Down Roots In Southwestern Connecticut
BY RICK GREEN
As the governor and executives from NBC Sports were announcing ambitious plans for a new sports network at the old Clairol factory here last month, across town preparations were underway for a Jell-O fight on the set of “The Jerry Springer Show.”
Not far away, at the studios of the Connecticut Film Center, writers for the TBS series “Are We There Yet?” pored over scripts at the TV sitcom’s studios. At the offices of Encompass Digital Media on the waterfront, technicians for the Arts and Entertainment, Lifetime, YES and ESPN networks sat in front of monitors, busy with post-production and other editing work. During baseball season, the Yankees pregame and postgame shows originate here.
In January, a critically acclaimed series by Sony Pictures Television, “The Big C,” will resume shooting in this city. The WWE, bursting at the seams in office and studio space around town, has announced plans for its own network next year. A high-profile television series, as well as a fourth daytime talk show for the NBCUniversal studios at the Stamford Media Center, may be announced in coming weeks.
Don’t be put off by Jerry Springer’s lowbrow antics. The tax credits are paying off for Connecticut. Something is happening down here on the Gold Coast, a short train ride and a world away from Manhattan.
The story of media companies expanding in Connecticut could be one of the more overlooked success stories of the year. The latest example is NBC Sports, with its bid, admittedly a long shot, to replicate the well-documented success of Bristol-based ESPN with a new sports network in Stamford. Last week, New York media reported that industry giant Time Warner was eyeing Connecticut.
Five years into the state’s still-controversial film tax credit program, a nascent industry has taken a promising turn away from movies and toward television and digital media. Connecticut’s lucrative tax credit of up to 30 percent of expenses is attracting fewer movies but more businesses with permanent jobs.
The expensive credits — and low interest, taxpayer-backed state loans — have changed the game, attracting big names like NBC and rising players, such as Blue Sky Studios, which has set up shop in Greenwich.
“Before, people were like … Connecticut?” Kevin Segalla, founder of the private Connecticut Film Center, said as we drove around the city together and he showed off the growth of Stamford’s film and digital media community.
Segalla’s company offers a range of services, from sound stages to financing for film, television and, more recently, video game production. His company owns three sound stages and is a part-owner of the former Clairol property.
“Without the incentive program, it would not have happened. The incentive program is the catalyst,” Segalla said. “Now Connecticut is one of the top places the networks are interested in.”
That might sound like a stretch, except we’re looking at two new networks setting up shop here. Hundreds of new jobs have arrived in recent years. These companies, as ESPN Vice President Mike Soltys reminded me, offer good salaries that attract educated young people.
This precious demographic is in short supply in Connecticut.
“With NBC moving here, I feel a lot is happening,” said Christopher Crowley, whose small 203 Studios occupies an old warehouse on the harbor. “It’s just going to draw more people. You are going to get more activity.”
Since the tax credits began in 2006, production spending in Connecticut has grown to roughly $815 million. About $169 million worth of tax credits have been issued. These credits are transferable, which means a company may sell them to another company with a Connecticut tax liability.
After an initial flourish, the moviemaking has declined as industries such as digital animation have grown here. Blue Sky, for example, recently announced plans to add 70 jobs, boosting the digital animation studio’s total to nearly 500 employees.
Connecticut Voices for Children has been a persistent critic of the government-backed expansion of film and media, saying the credits don’t create Connecticut jobs or support in-state businesses. The group, which advocates for children and families, has estimated that Connecticut recoups less than $1 in $5 of the revenue lost through the tax credits.
But Voices’ critique was based on out-of-state movie companies coming in for relatively brief periods of filming, not on TV and digital media created and produced here.
“What we are really seeing is a true cluster development in Fairfield County,” said George Norfleet, who directs the state’s film office. “One of the reasons is the tax incentives. The other thing is the proximity to New York.”
“Our bread and butter has evolved into being [a place for] television shows and not feature films. Those are not the types of job that are four months and it’s gone.”
Voices for Children is right about one thing: The tax credits don’t come cheap. But that misses the larger picture just now coming into focus. After five years we have bricks and mortar — and jobs — to prove that a new, desirable industry is taking shape here. We should continue to help it grow.