Criticism rained down from all directions when the Smithsonian and CBS/Showtime recently announced a partnership creating a cable television network. Independent documentary filmmakers, public television professionals, academics and members of Congress questioned the partnership contract and its implications for "access" to the world's biggest museum complex -- home of our nation's treasures. Funded three-quarters by Congress and one-quarter by the private sector, the Smithsonian is governed by its Board of Regents, whose members include the chief justice, the vice president, three senators, three members of the House and nine private citizens. The regents' compass for navigating such moments is the Smithsonian's undisputed 160-year-old mission, "the increase and diffusion of knowledge."
It's timely to ask: Why the video partnership? And why the reaction?
For years, the Smithsonian management and its board have worked to extend the Smithsonian's reach beyond its museums on the Mall. Several initiatives have made much progress, including the world's largest traveling exhibition service, an affiliates program whose network spans 145 museums in 39 states; dozens of education outreach programs; and the Smithsonian magazine, which is enjoyed by more than 2 million subscribers. But in a new era in which modes of learning and media habits are changing, conveniently available, high-quality video must be part of the Smithsonian's mix in fulfilling its mission. Up to now, the Smithsonian has had a negligible presence on television.
After thorough study and outside exploration by management, and ongoing discussion with the Board of Regents, the board authorized the Smithsonian to enter into a 30-year partnership with CBS/Showtime. The partnership will begin by producing some 100 hours of programming each year on American culture, history, science and art. CBS/Showtime has committed to supply the money and the expertise. The Smithsonian will provide content and oversight to ensure that productions meet high standards. The initial offering, Smithsonian-on-Demand, will be available on digital cable 24 hours a day. Later, we hope to provide Internet video.
Some are concerned that the Smithsonian has agreed not to compete with its own partnership by limiting the number of times it participates in a significant way with other documentary producers and commercial film distributors. But even with this provision, substantial film collaborations with others can continue -- annually, three times more than normally occur. And there are no limits for film projects whose Smithsonian-based content is incidental to the overall program.
Due in part to shortcomings in the Smithsonian's early communication about the partnership, a fundamental misunderstanding has arisen over the issue of access. In fact, there is no change in access for anyone -- not for researchers, not for educators, not for journalists, not for filmmakers. While some have been concerned about the agreement's confidential information -- common in business contracts where, as here, the parties face vigorous competition -- the complete document has been made available to congressional committees that oversee the Smithsonian.
Finally, critics have questioned the length of the contract. Numerous industry examples make clear that a successful video network can take a decade to establish. If many people watch Smithsonian-on-Demand, the partnership will be a success in meeting the Smithsonian's mission and the millions of non-federal dollars spent on programming will dwarf any private commitment ever received or contemplated for public education at the Smithsonian. If the public doesn't respond, the partners have the option of calling it quits. In truth, we hope to celebrate a long relationship.
The Smithsonian-on-Demand partnership advances the institution's mission, strikingly, without requiring substantial financial resources or new internal capabilities in video production and distribution. The alternative was to continue to rely on always-welcome but ad hoc video project proposals from third parties -- proposals whose sustained frequency, reach and alignment with the Smithsonian's mission leave us short of the larger goal. With much reflection, management and the regents chose a more proactive path, while working to ensure that there is little downside to the arrangement. The trade-off favors all Americans, who will now have far greater, flexible access to the Smithsonian across a plethora of video screens far from the Mall.
-- Alan Spoon
is a regent of the Smithsonian and a member of its executive committee. He is a managing general partner of Polaris Venture Partners. He was formerly president of The Washington Post Co.