The Smithsonian-Showtime Deal

Ken AshfordPopular CultureLeave a Comment

If you like independent movies, especially documentaries, this should be a concern for you:

The Smithsonian Institution is an American treasure, attracting some 25 million visitors every year. It keeps an incredible archive of collections and has some of the most talented curatorial staff on the planet.

But last month, the Institution announced a joint venture with Showtime Networks to create a new television network. While at first blush the deal sounds like a creative way to raise much-needed funds, this deal is bad news. Two main problems:

1) The Institution refuses to disclose the deal they signed with Showtime, claiming it is a “business contract that does not involve federal funds.” Actually, the Institution is publicly chartered and receives 75 percent of its funding from federal appropriations or government grants and contracts.

2) Though details are murky, we do know that the arrangement gives the new joint venture a “right of first refusal” on key parts of the Smithsonian archives. In other words, filmmakers, historians, or others who might want to use certain Smithsonian materials could be blocked if Showtime executives say so. PBS documentarian Ken Burns called the policy “terrifying,” and said it “would have prohibited him from making some of his recent works.”

Over 200 concerned filmmakers, law professors, historians, archivists, Internet pioneers, and others have signed a letter asking the Smithsonian to annul the contract and hold public hearings. Also, the Center for American Progress has filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking that the contract be brought into the public eye.

Among those objecting to the deal are independent documentarians Ken Burns and Michael Moore.

UPDATE:  The New York Times covers the controversy.