Tisbury selectmen have confirmed the town will abide by the existing funding arrangements for MVTV, thus ending a week of confused speculation that Tisbury could pull its support for the Island’s community broadcaster.
The concerns were fueled by comments from Tisbury’s Department of Public Works director, Fred LaPiana, indicating that the town could claim the $80,000 a year which now goes to MVTV on its behalf, and siphon some or all of the money off for other projects.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the board, however, chairman Jeff Kristal said the selectmen had decided to continue their support of the arrangement hammered out 10 years ago, under which the Island’s sole cable provider, Comcast, is required to give five per cent of gross revenue generated on Martha’s Vineyard directly to MVTV, rather than seek to have the money rerouted from Comcast to the town and then on to MVTV.
The board had earlier agreed, in executive session, to sign on to a draft request for proposals with Comcast, reaffirming the existing funding model.
In open session, Mr. Kristal emphasized that the board would not make “any change to the way the money flows.”
The decision came as a relief to MVTV and to representatives of other towns involved in current negotiations with Comcast for the renewal of its franchise agreement on the Island.
The comments by Mr. LaPiana were made at the Jan. 14 meeting of the cable advisory committee, the all-Island group which is overseeing negotiations for the new 10-year agreement with Comcast.
One of those present at that meeting — which ironically was not recorded by MVTV — West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel, later condemned Mr. LaPiana’s “outrageous” proposal as likely to “sabotage” negotiations between the other Island towns and Comcast.
“What Fred seemed to be saying,” Mr. Knabel later told the Gazette, “was that the town wants to set up their own studio, in parallel with MVTV, but exclusively for Tisbury. And not only do they want their five per cent of revenues — which amounts to about $80,000 a year — but also want some portion of the reserves that MVTV has accrued, so they can set up this arrangement for the exclusive use of Tisbury.”
He suggested Mr. LaPiana was running the agenda of another nascent cable company, Global Protection Communication Systems, which has proposed setting up its own fiber-optic cable network on the Island. Mr. Knabel said Mr. LaPiana and a Vineyard-based GPCS executive, Andrew Nanaa, were so close as to be “joined at the hip.”
Other accounts of what Mr. LaPiana said to the committee differed somewhat in minor detail, but several of those present agreed that Mr. LaPiana had said Tisbury wanted to control the flow of money to MVTV, was looking to cut funding for programming, and was considering alternative uses for at least some of the funds.
When the Gazette contacted Mr. LaPiana last Thursday, he confirmed that he had advocated interposing the town between Comcast and MVTV.
It was “the town’s money, not MVTV’s money,” he said.
Nor did he rule out siphoning off some of that money for other purposes, such as sourcing content from elsewhere, or acquiring the means for the town to produce its own.
“The option [of directing money elsewhere] is there, certainly,” he said.
But within 24 hours of making those comments, Mr. LaPiana had changed his position.
In a note to advisory committee chairman Jennifer Rand on Friday he wrote:
“As a heads up . . . we are going to back off the in-house ownership of equipment, and possibly the money’s coming through the town if the MVTV is willing to include within the agreement between the town and MVTV to review their budget and expenses periodically . . . Therefore Tisbury’s RFP with Comcast use [sic] the same wording as the current agreement with regard to where the money goes first . . .”
At Tuesday night’s meeting of the selectmen, Mr. Kristal, MVTV executive director Julienne Turner and board chairman Denys Wortman huddled. Talks about formalizing more structured reporting by the station to the town will take place in coming weeks.
Both Mr. Wortman and Ms. Turner later said they were happy with the outcome.
And Mr. Knabel, also, said he was satisfied.
“It paves the way for smoother negotiations with Comcast, if all six towns are on the same page. And I’m delighted to see they now are,” he said.