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Smithsonian Sells Soul to Showtime

by Anthony Kaufman
April 2, 2006 11:26 AM
2 Comments
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In the latest case of corporations taking over public institutions for profit, The New York Times has published an important story, "Smithsonian Agreement Angers Filmmakers" about a recent pact between the Smithsonian Institution and Showtime Networks Inc. to form Smithsonian Networks, "which has the right of first refusal to commercial documentaries that rely heavily on Smithsonian collections or staff." In those cases, reports the story, the documentaries would have to be first offered to Smithsonian on Demand, a new cable channel.

Ken Burns, for one, is pissed off, quoted as saying, "It feels like the Smithsonian has essentially optioned America's attic to one company, and to have access to that attic, we would have to be signed off with, and perhaps co-opted by, that entity."

The articles goes on to say that Laurie Kahn-Leavitt's recent doc Tupperware! would have fallen under the arrangement, which was broadcast on PBS's "American Experience." "This is a public archive," Kahn-Leavitt says in the article. "This should not be offered on an exclusive basis to anyone, and it's not good enough that they can decide on a case-by-case basis what they will and won't approve."

UPDATE: Powerful political blog Daily Kos picked up the story on Sunday, offering angry filmmakers a suggested outlet:

"CONTACT the Smithsonian's Administration and demand a retraction of the exclusivity clause! Our 'American attic' is not meant for the exclusive use of corporations":

Secretary Lawrence M. Small
Smithsonian Information
PO Box 37012
SI Building, Room 153, MRC 010
Washington, DC 20013-7012
Office of Public Affairs: (202) 633-2400

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2 Comments

  • Rik Panganiban | April 5, 2006 7:00 AMReply

    Thanks for bringing this to light. At its face, this agreement basically means that the Smithsonian reserves to have first bite of the apple on any works based largely on their holdings. This doesn't seem automatically censorious or chilling.

    But when I think about it, what's to keep the Smithsonian or Showtime from acquiring a documentary that might be, say, critical of the US government or the cable industry, and then refuse to air it? THAT would be seriously chilling.

  • Paul | April 4, 2006 6:01 AMReply

    Anthony, great post. I hadn't known about this until I read your post a few days ago. I am connecting this to AIVF in a post on SRF today.

    http://www.selfreliantfilm.com/?p=98

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