Politics & Government

After ETV leaders quit, SC’s public broadcaster looks to recover from financial feud

The state’s public broadcasting agency has been caught in a major rift over fundraising and spending.

Months of tension among members of the SC ETV Commission, its president and leaders of the nonprofit SC ETV Endowment culminated last week in the resignation of three of the eight ETV Commission members, including the chairman. The ETV Commission, along with ETV President Anthony Padgett, had hoped to gain more say in how money from the Endowment is spent, even raising the possibility of legal action against the hand that has fed the agency tens of millions of charitable dollars over four decades.

Chairman Brent Nelsen and commissioners Karen Martin and Jill Holt walked away from their governor-appointed seats last week. In a scathing op-ed published in The Post and Courier of Charleston, the ex-commissioners blasted the Endowment and declared “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.” Nelsen told The State he wanted ETV to have more flexibility for funding initiatives such as in-school education and more forward-thinking broadcast platforms, as well as technical equipment.

The Endowment is one of the most highly-rated charities in the nation. This year, it provided about 27 percent, or more than $5 million, of ETV’s total funding. The Endowment is adamant that donor funds are used specifically and only for the purposes donors intend them: to purchase and produce the much-loved programming that airs on public TV and radio stations across the state — think “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” “The Great British Baking Show,” “All Things Considered” and “Walter Edgar’s Journal.”

The ETV commissioners’ reach for funding beyond those uses is against the Endowment’s mission and bylaws, said Coby Hennecy, executive director of the Endowment.

“We unapologetically will not deviate from our mission, and our mission is to support programming,” Hennecy said. “We just had the best year in the Endowment, and we are looking to continue in that mode and then some and to bring the best television and radio programming to the citizens of South Carolina and beyond.”

Hennecy said she worries the dispute — and the harshly-worded op-ed by the departed commissioners — could confuse and deter longstanding donors.

“We are concerned that the op-ed could have a negative impact,” Hennecy said. “There’s not a thing that’s changed in the Endowment. We’re still committed to our mission and to honoring and stewarding our donors.”

The Endowment is an independent nonprofit that raises funds to support the programming broadcast by ETV, which is a taxpayer-supported state agency. The Endowment collects about $10 million in revenue each year from memberships, donations, grants and investments. The majority of the Endowment’s spending is programming purchases, which includes the shows broadcast on public TV and radio across SC, from PBS, NPR, BBC Worldwide and more.

All the money that is collected from on-air ETV fundraising drives — that is, support “from viewers like you” — goes directly to programming, the Endowment says. Those donations make up only a portion of the funds the Endowment disburses to ETV.

Outside of programming, other Endowment spending goes toward operations and investments, which continue to boost the Endowment’s $24 million pot of assets.

ETV has suffered under state funding cuts for years, shifting more weight to private donations collected by the Endowment.

Padgett and Nelsen had tried in recent months to get more say in how donor funds are spent to fund initiatives outside of traditional TV and radio programming. Nelsen argued the Endowment’s definition of “programming” is too narrow. The Endowment, he said, has not treated the ETV Commission as equal partners in stewarding donor funds.

“The whole industry has changed. Public broadcasting has changed. Public networks have changed. And we need more flexibility” in funding, Nelsen said. “SC ETV is one of the premier networks in the country and could be even better. They need more flexibility in how to manage their priorities.”

In the past, the Endowment has been willing to expand its support beyond purchasing TV and radio programs to help fund, for instance, a new building for ETV operations. However, anything outside of programming is technically the state’s responsibility to pay for, the Endowment argues.

Though the longstanding relationship between ETV and the Endowment soured in the process of the funding feud, Hennecy said she is confident the relationship will mend and they will move forward as partners.

“I absolutely believe we will get back to where we were,” Hennecy said.

Sarah Ellis has reported on Columbia and Richland County since 2014. She graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism.
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