Public Access TV Funding Loss in Santa Barbara Goes to Trial

County Argues Lapse in TVSB Franchise Agreement Gives Right to $1 Million Cox Communications Endowment

Heidi Stilwell and Rebecca Brand prepare to record “Around the World” in the studio at TV Santa Barbara | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

TVSB — Santa Barbara County’s only public access TV station — is battling the County Board of Supervisors and Cox Communications to keep its $1 million endowment in a heels-dug-in legal feud.

The Public Education Capital Endowment was part of a franchise agreement Cox Communications made with Santa Barbara County in 2001 with the intent to “provide for the long-term support of public education access channels within the County and the cities of Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Carpinteria.” 

The Board of Supervisors formed a separate nonprofit corporation in 2001 to oversee the funds, as the agreement also states that “the County of Santa Barbara will manage the PE Capital Endowment.”

The agreement worked without issue for 16 years, until the franchise agreement between the county and Cox expired in 2017 due to new cable franchising laws. 

It was at this point the county allowed its agreement with TVSB to dissipate along with the franchise agreement, despite TVSB continuing to operate and provide the same services. The county and Cox are asking the courts to redistribute the endowment money for government and emergency communication projects, but TVSB is arguing that the endowment was never intended for those purposes, and therefore TVSB should remain the beneficiary.

“TVSB has been an important part of the local landscape since 1974,” said its executive director, Erik Davis. “Whether it’s advocating for freedom of speech, providing true local programming, supporting over 250 nonprofit organizations, or teaching youth and seniors about media literacy in the digital age, TVSB plays a meaningful role in the lives of many local residents.

“This is what we do, the role we fill, and why we have worked tirelessly for the last 10 months to find partnership and compromise in lieu of litigation,” Davis continued. The attorney for TVSB, Jared M. Katz, stated, “We strongly believe that our interpretation of the contract and legal issues is in favor of TVSB.”

The three entities haven’t found a compromise. The trial, set for March 2 in Judge Colleen Sterne’s courtroom, will decide if the $1 million should be redistributed now that the franchise agreement is over, or if it should remain paying out to TVSB as the sole beneficiary that meets the original intent of the endowment.

The endowment did not include an end date in its language, nor did it state that the money pot would dissolve at the end of the franchise agreement. On the other hand, it also does not explicitly state that the endowment is permanent, and only uses the phrase “long-term” to describe its lifespan.

Photo: Daniel DreifussVolunteer Michael Nicholson works in the producers room during the recording of “Around the World” in the studio at TV Santa Barbara.

The county and Cox propose the funds be split up these three ways: $500,000 for county emergency communications, $250,000 to construct a county fiber-optic link, and $250,000 for Cox to build a fiber-optic networks to 400 homes between North San Marcos Path and Painted Cave/Paradise roads. Of the emergency communications money, $100,000 would be for Cox and county co-branding, and Cox would contract and build the fiber-optic links and networks.

“Our thoughts are that TVSB provides a service, and its operational agreement with the county expired in 2017,” said Michael Ghizzoni, legal counsel for the county. “TVSB cannot compel the county to buy its services, but they can present any business proposition to the county, and that’s what most other vendors do instead of litigation.”

TVSB’s executive director Davis pointed out that the City of Santa Barbara and the City of Carpinteria both contribute cable-related income to TVSB — the county does not. He said TVSB is more than a vendor. For example, he said, they taped all the League of Women Voters Candidate Forums for the public at well-below cost, and they taped and aired the most recent UCSB Economic Forecast Project at no cost for the public. He said they regularly film and air low-cost or free programs for the good of the public.

Cox’s attorney, Richard Patch of San Francisco, did not respond to the Independent’s request for comment. According to Cox’s pre-trial brief, Cox representatives directly involved in the negotiations for the franchise agreement will testify at the March 2 hearing that Cox and county representatives understood and agreed that the term of the endowment would be for the same term as the Franchise Agreement itself.

The individuals negotiating and agreeing to this for Cox are Michael Grover, currently vice president government affairs for Cox, and Julie McGovern, Cox’s then-general manager.


Editor’s Note: Independent columnist Jerry Roberts hosts a show on TVSB, on which Delaney Smith and other Independent reporters have appeared.

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