The Coalition Column

Historians Raise Concerns about Smithsonian's Deal with Showtime

Bruce Craig, May 2006

Independent documentary filmmakers, historians, and others who make use of Smithsonian collections, archives, and staff expertise have raised concerns about a semiexclusive commercial agreement between the Smithsonian Institution (SI) and Showtime Networks Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of CBS Corporation that operates a premium cable service (which provides everything from original programming and uncut movies to late-night adult fare). Through this agreement the SI and Showtime have entered into a joint venture that seeks to develop, launch, and operate a Smithsonian television programming service called "Smithsonian on Demand." The SI's goal in cutting the deal is to create more than 100 branded, original content programs a year about the Smithsonian's collections and research. The arrangement also seeks to bring in an undisclosed amount of new revenue to the financially strapped institution. The SI hopes to have about 40 hours of programming available to about 25 million households by December 2006 when officials plan on launching the service.

But a chorus of independent filmmakers and SI collections users, including Ken Burns, producer of many award-winning PBS series such as Jazz and The Civil War and Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, producer of the awardwinning film Tupperware! have protested vehemently against the arrangement. These critics contend that it unreasonably restricts access to the institution's scientists, archives, objects, and collections. Burns said, "I find this deal terrifying," and Leavitt declared, "I think this is obscene. . . . I am not against them having a deal with Showtime that is lucrative, but the archives are for the public to use."

SI insiders report that decisions on the semicommercial deal were made "at the Castle level" with little consultation or input being sought from the management and staff of individual museums that comprise the Smithsonian family of museums. While SI officials assert that the institution "explored other media outlets," the selection of Showtime was not subjected to competitive bidding—the process generally adhered to by governmental agencies when considering proposals from private-sector entities wishing to do business with the government. Reportedly, several SI museums that work closely and have "an active relationship" with filmmakers have concerns, as many of their filmmaker partners now feel shut out. The National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum, for example, both work closely with independent producers who make programs for broadcast on PBS, the History Channel, C-SPAN, and the Discovery Channel.

Except for news programs (such as 60 Minutes, Dateline, and Frontline) and existing deals with a select number of filmmakers whose projects are being grandfathered in, the new policy has been limiting access from January 1, 2006, to Smithsonian staff curators, scientists, and experts as well as public collections for filmmakers who are making more than "incidental" use of the Smithsonian resources.

A historian, for example, who wanted to produce a documentary film about the American Revolution that would draw significantly on Smithsonian staff expertise and collections, would first have to run the proposal past SI and Showtime officials. If Showtime declines to produce the program, the Smithsonian will still have the ability to enter into what officials claim is "a limited number of contracts" (believed to be six) outside of the Showtime deal. But if the Smithsonian too then declines to produce the program, the program just can't get made. SI officials assert that 24 of 26 requests submitted under the terms of the new policy have been approved. Nevertheless, historians and other independent filmmakers will not have in-depth use of Smithsonian collections or its archives without first dealing with a potential commercial competitor. Margaret Drain, vice president for national programs at public television outlet WGBH Boston, fears that PBS mainstay programs like Nova and The American Experience would suffer greatly because of the new restrictions. "These are programs that regularly rely on the collections of the Smithsonian," she said. "If access is restricted, we are really going to be in trouble."

Thus far, the Smithsonian has declined several requests (including one from the National Coalition for History) for a copy of the Smithsonian-Showtime agreement, insisting that the terms of all such commercial agreements are "proprietary." In response, interested parties and organizations have begun to simultaneously make Freedom of Information requests through members of Congress and congressional committees for copies of the agreement in an attempt to gain an in-depth understanding of the more complex aspects of the agreement.

Clearly, the motive behind the deal is twofold: the Smithsonian is looking for a way to develop its own film and television materials at no cost to the institution, and it wants to boost its nonfederal revenue stream. And the financial needs of the SI are great. Recently, when appearing before a congressional appropriations committee, Smithsonian officials stated the stark truth—that in addition to the $644 million requested federal appropriation it needs to operate the museums under its jurisdiction, an additional $90-plus million is needed to reduce a backlog of repairs. One way to raise funds for the SI is to expand the Smithsonian Business Ventures division activities. SI officials apparently concluded that cable television's "video on demand" (or VOD) was a potentially lucrative funding stream even though only some 25 million homes currently have on-demand service. SI officials are counting on an expansion of digital cable services, which is considered by some as the fastest growing segment of the cable market.

The commercial agreement with Showtime is not the first for the Smithsonian. SI officials have already entered into an agreement with book publisher HarperCollins that amounts to an exclusive "right of first refusal" for that publishing house for SI-related publications and related materials; sources inside the SI also state that a nonexclusive agreement with Corbis (a major commercial photo archive) for SI photographic images is also in the works.

At this writing, the AHA has sent a letter to Lawrence Small, the Smithsonian Institution's secretary, protesting the arrangement with Showtime (see the text of the letter), and several national organizations representing the history, archival, library, researcher, and humanities communities are set to meet in mid-April to formulate a national strategy to address the issue.

—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at rbcraig@historycoalition.org.