Smithsonian Deal With Showtime Passes Muster

The Smithsonian's Sheila Burke called the GAO report
The Smithsonian's Sheila Burke called the GAO report "fair and accurate." (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Smithsonian Institution's controversial partnership with Showtime Networks has not hampered researchers' access to Smithsonian materials, the Government Accountability Office said yesterday.

The GAO said its review of the contract also found the Smithsonian conducted a thorough and competitive process before closing the Showtime deal.

The contract gives Showtime semi-exclusive rights to the use of Smithsonian resources and lays the groundwork for digital cable programming, called Smithsonian on Demand. It is scheduled to premiere in March.

Filmmakers, researchers and members of Congress had objected to what they interpreted as restricted access to Smithsonian archives. Researchers not involved with Showtime projects must get approval for anything more than "incidental" use of materials. In April, Ken Burns, the award-winning director of such PBS series "Civil War" and "Baseball," called the contract a mistake.

The GAO review, begun last June, said its inquiry had prompted the Smithsonian and Showtime to make clear that researchers' ideas do not have to be presented first to Showtime to gain Smithsonian access.

The Smithsonian archives hold millions of documents, photographs and films. Its staff of experts, spread through 18 museums, is one of the largest in the world.

The 51-page report says Smithsonian officials made several missteps in informing Congress and the public about the details of the deal. The information "provided about the contract's impact to interested parties has been insufficient," said the report, which also notes that "the Smithsonian recognizes that its public relations have suffered throughout the implementation of the contract."

As a result of critics' objections, loudly expressed, "concerns have been raised about damage to the Smithsonian's image and the appropriateness of limiting the use of the collections held in trust for the American public," the report said.

However, the GAO found the Smithsonian received 117 requests for filming after the contract was in place and rejected only two.

GAO said its evaluation of the contract's impact was hampered by the "incomplete data and oversimplified criteria" provided by the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian says its paperwork was created for a different purpose.

The Smithsonian has centralized the request process and is giving written documentation to filmmakers whose projects are rejected for any reason, according to officials.

In its formal reply to the report, Smithsonian officials acknowledged that they "may not have done enough initially to inform others about how the contract would affect existing Smithsonian policies and procedures."

The complaints from scholars and general confusion about the extent of access caught the attention of lawmakers. Members of Congress were annoyed that they hadn't been consulted about the groundbreaking venture with Showtime and asked the GAO to look into the deal. As a reprimand, a House committee voted to take $20 million out of the Smithsonian's proposed 2007 budget. The Senate has not acted.

Some details of the contract were made public by Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small at a congressional oversight hearing in May. Small said the Smithsonian signed a rare 30-year contract with Showtime and that it would receive $500,000 a year if the deal is successful. The contract allowed the Smithsonian to create six shows a year with non-Showtime filmmakers. Small said Showtime's investment was "tens of millions of dollars upfront." The Smithsonian didn't invest any money and holds a 10 percent stake in the project.

The GAO report said the Smithsonian projected the value of the agreement at $150 million after 10 years, money the Smithsonian leadership has said would be used for its exhibitions and public programs.

The Smithsonian released the contract to a congressional panel in May but has not made it public. In its report, the GAO excluded specific financial information about the deal.

The GAO said the Smithsonian had discussed the television project with 18 media companies, entering into serious talks with Showtime in 2004.

Calling the report "a fair and accurate assessment," Sheila Burke, the deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the Smithsonian, said yesterday that the institution is documenting in more detail "the reasons for accepting and declining requests from filmmakers." She said the institution is also posting more complete information on the Smithsonian Web site about the procedures.

In its formal response to the GAO document, the Smithsonian said several film projects are underway as part of Smithsonian on Demand. Those include "America's Hangar," a visit to the National Air and Space Museum; "Saving Stuff," a story with conservation expert Don Williams; "Smithsonian Treasures," a behind-the-scenes look at 150 objects from American history; and "Ghost Cat: Saving the Clouded Leopard," focusing on the work of National Zoo veterinarian JoGayle Howard.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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