As three long-standing, volunteer members of the South Carolina Educational Television Commission, we are resigning immediately due to deceitful forces that have taken control of the public broadcasting network we love, threatening to undo years of hard work.
Gov. Nikki Haley appointed us in 2011 to transform ETV from a network supported primarily by public money to an entrepreneurial agency that restricts taxpayer funding to core government functions, including emergency communication and teacher training, while growing additional revenue for a first-rate broadcast network.
We faced daunting challenges then. Cuts in state funds required layoffs and a complete restructuring. The digital revolution also disrupted the broadcast industry, blurring the lines between TV, radio and the internet, and transforming the very nature of a broadcast “program.”
Two extremely capable ETV CEOs caught the vision and made great strides toward our goal. ETV expanded local TV and radio programming, presented the PBS hit “A Chef’s Life,” streamlined online educational resources, broadened emergency management services, opened access to cutting-edge weather reports and exploded our social media presence.
ETV also found new revenue streams. Our participation in the Federal Communications Commission’s spectrum auction brought $43 million into state coffers to replace ancient equipment (and buy new school buses). We leased our spectrum and tower space. We monetized as many assets as we could.
We could not have done all of this without the financial support of the ETV Endowment, the 40-year-old nonprofit that solicits contributions — on air and otherwise — from “donors like you.” Most years, the endowment provides about 20% of ETV’s annual budget.
That being said, the money raised in ETV’s name should be available to the network and the people of South Carolina with as few strings as legally possible. Donors believe their money is going to ETV; in fact, it goes to the endowment, and ETV must petition to receive it.
In summer 2018, the House Legislative Oversight Committee recommended ETV and the endowment create a memorandum of understanding to govern the relationship between the entities. It was a reasonable request. We fully supported the idea, but the endowment adamantly rejected it.
We made many attempts to meet with endowment officials to discuss the MOU to no avail. In April, the commission presented a draft MOU to the endowment as a basis for discussion, but we got no reply.
Recently the endowment’s leaders and their politically powerful allies have taken actions aimed at taking over the commission rather than engaging our concerns. Two seats on the commission have been left vacant. Repeated calls to the governor’s office for new appointments went unheeded.
Then, in July, a commissioner resigned and was replaced in record time by a former lobbyist for the cable industry. Within a week, a second new commissioner was appointed — a sitting member of the endowment board. Both new commissioners have joined two existing members to form a controlling bloc taking its orders from the endowment. In addition, the bloc has plotted to meet outside of announced commission meetings in violation of the state Freedom of Information Act.
We believe ETV is now controlled by moneyed outside interests. The Columbia swamp has swallowed up a state jewel. Oversight is rightfully in the hands of the commission and the Legislature. An unprincipled cabal has usurped both.
Brent F. Nelsen is chairman and an at-large member of the S.C. Educational Television Commission. Karen Martin represents House District 4 and Jill Holt represents House District 7 on the commission.