Hill Smacks Smithsonian Over Showtime Deal


A House subcommittee overseeing its funding has cut the Smithsonian's budget by $5 million and added language to its appropriation to limit exclusive contracts like the TV deal with Showtime that has drawn fire on Capitol Hill from some Democrats and Republicans.

The move stems from a deal that limited access to the Smithsonian's collections by third-party commercial TV programming producers unless they got permission from Showtime.

The Smithsonian has getting grief from legislators and even iconic noncom documentary producer Ken Burns for its deal with Shotime/CBS to create Smithsonian on Demand, a VOD channel with shows based in the museum's collections, research, exhibits, and publications (Smithsonian magazine is one).

The deal restricted access by other third parties for commercial programming based on the museum's vast wealth of exhibits and information.

After the deal was announced earlier this month, the American Historial Association and similar groups expressed concerns-- "alarm and dismay," was how AHA President Linda Kerber put it--about possible limitations on the Smithsonian the contract might include, calling it a “violation of the trust of generations of Americans who have donated materials to [the Smithsonian] which they believed the public would have free, open, equal and nondiscriminatory access forever.”

Smithsonian vets have for a while opined about the increasing commercialization of the Museum. Small was brought in in 2000 and pledged an "energetic reimagination" of the museum, some of whose exhibits were getting a little long in the tooth.

Small, in a letter to the Smithsonian advisory board April 28, defended the deal and laid some of the blame for the flap on the media.

"Unfortunately, much of the outcry is based on the unfounded claim the agreement constrains the work of historians and documentary researchers from using the collections and resources of the Smithsonian," he said, adding: "First and foremost, what the press fails to appreciate is the new approach will further the Smithsonian's mission and reach millions of people beyond the walls of our museums and research centers."

All access to the Smithsonian for news and public affairs purposes will continue unaffected," he said. Small said the deal would have no effect on scholarly activities.

He said that complaints from noncommercial documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (The Civil War) that he would be excluded from access to content was not true. But he did say the deal affects third parties who want to sell to commercial media outlets, but said that historically has been only a few entities.

Small said the deal could mean much-needed funds for the museum, but it was also an opportunity to reach "millions of people beyond the walls of our museums and research centers."

The legislators took some of that much needed money away Thursday in changes to the fiscal year 2007 appropriations bill. According to the committee, the bill now "includes statutory language limiting the Smithsonian’s ability to execute any contract or legal agreement which could limit public access to the Smithsonian collections."