Saturday, December 16, 2006

Smithsonian TV deal irks investigators

Two filmmakers were refused access to the Smithsonian Institution's collections for their projects but researchers generally have not been restricted so far by the Smithsonian's semi-exclusive deal with a cable network, congressional investigators say.

The public has justifiable concerns nonetheless about the 30-year contract between the Smithsonian and Showtime Networks Inc., a cable network owned by CBS Corp., according to the
Government Accountability Office.

"It is too early to determine the long-term impact of the contract," Congress' investigative arm said in a report Friday. "Access to the Smithsonian's collections and staff for research purposes remains unchanged, but the direct impact on filmmakers will depend largely on how many request permission to use a substantial amount of Smithsonian content."

The GAO also criticized the Smithsonian for not providing enough information to the public about the contract and for assuring filmmakers their access would not suffer based on analyses that rely on "incomplete data and oversimplified criteria."

Investigators said the Smithsonian must give filmmakers better information about how the contract will affect them. The Smithsonian's secretary, Lawrence Small, agreed to comply by better explaining decisions made about filming requests.

The deal does not affect the use of Smithsonian collections for news or public affairs programs.

In the first nine months since the contract took effect on Jan. 1, Smithsonian denied two of 117 filmmaking requests because of its new obligations to Showtime to restrict the commercial use of the Smithsonian name, the GAO found. Four other requests were approved, but only as exceptions to the new contractual rules that allow for up to six independent projects each year.

The Smithsonian's Board of Regents approved the contract with Showtime in November 2005, after approaching 18 major media companies to gauge their interest in gaining semi-exclusive rights to produce and commercially distribute audiovisual programs using Smithsonian trademarks and content.

The Smithsonian anticipates the new commercial programming will bring anywhere from $99 million to more than $150 million over the life of the contract.

That projection depends partly on the success of the programming, mainly a new cable channel, Smithsonian on Demand, jointly owned by Smithsonian and Showtime. Smithsonian projects the channel will reach 31 million households by 2010.

Filmmakers, historians, archivists, librarians and other researchers have criticized the venture for its confidentiality and its potential to limit public access to the Smithsonian's vast public resources.

Commonly referred to as "the nation's attic," the Smithsonian includes 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoo and nine research facilities.

Small told GAO investigators their findings were accurate. In a letter this month accompanying the GAO report, he said Smithsonian's expansion into television was long overdue and already generating "an exponential growth in filming projects" that could only have occurred by joining with a large, established multimedia corporation.