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From The Coalition Column of the February 2007 Perspectives

GAO Issues Review of Smithsonian-Showtime Venture

Lee White, February 2007

Lee WhiteThe saga of the Smithsonian Institution's controversial partnership with the Showtime Network continues as the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued its congressionally mandated review of the deal in December 2006. A full copy of the report can be accessed online at: www.gao.gov/new.items/d07275.pdf.

In March 2006, the Smithsonian Institution announced that it had entered into a 30-year, semi-exclusive contract with Showtime Networks Inc., to create a digital on-demand television channel. Members of Congress and other stakeholders, including the National Coalition for History, raised issues concerning the contract's potential effects on public access to and use of the Smithsonian's collections, its confidential nature, and the process by which the Smithsonian negotiated the agreement. The GAO found that the Smithsonian followed its internal contracting guidelines regarding competition, oversight, and conflicts of interest. The review indicated that when the Smithsonian began exploring a television venture in 2002, it approached 18 major media companies and negotiated with two before reaching a deal with Showtime. The board of directors of the Smithsonian Business Ventures (SBV) and the Smithsonian's board of regents, who approved the contract in November 2005, oversaw the process.

The GAO report stated that the Smithsonian has been working to implement policies and procedures necessary under the contract since it became effective in January 2006. However, thus far the information that the Smithsonian has provided to interested parties such as filmmakers and historians has been insufficient. The Smithsonian Institution and Showtime waited until March 2006 to publicly announce the new venture and did not implement internal processes to review filming requests for compliance with the contract until after the public announcement. The GAO was critical of the fact that while the Smithsonian has created a committee to review filming requests, it does not document in detail its rationale for key decisions or attempt to synthesize these decisions over time.

The GAO report also asserted that the "Frequently Asked Questions" section on the Smithsonian's web site provides little information for filmmakers about the new contract and procedures.

The GAO report concluded that it was too early to determine the long-term impact of the contract. Access to the Smithsonian's collections and staff for research purposes remains unchanged, but the direct impact on filmmakers will depend largely on how many request permission to use a substantial amount of Smithsonian content. So far, 6 of 117 filming requests have involved a substantial amount of Smithsonian content—2 were denied and 4 were approved as exceptions (the joint venture may grant up to 6 exceptions annually to those requesting access). The Smithsonian contends that it will be able to accommodate the same level of filming activity as it has in the past based on its historical analysis of filming contracts. However, the GAO found that this analysis was unreliable because it was based on incomplete data and oversimplified criteria. The report also noted that 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.

A Note from Lee White

For the last seven years, Bruce Craig has served as executive director of the National Coalition for History and the writer of this column. Throughout December, Bruce helped me transition into the executive director position. During that time, I came to appreciate the high regard in which Bruce is held in Washington, DC and in the historical and archival community. It also made me realize what big shoes I have to fill!

Bruce Craig officially ended his tenure with the history coalition on January 6, 2007, and turned over the writing of the Coalition Column to me. I begin, in this February 2007 issue of Perspectives, what I hope will be a long relationship with you, the readers of this publication. I hope also that you will feel free to comment and provide feedback on the column. The National Coalition for History exists to serve the needs of the historical and archival community and I welcome your input as to whether we are meeting those needs. You can reach me by e-mail at lwhite@historycoalition.org or by mail addressed to the National History Coalition, 400 A Street, SE, Washinghton, DC 20003-3889.