Your taxpayer dollars hard at work — for Showtime’s benefit
Your taxpayer dollars hard at work — for Showtime’s benefit
Your taxpayer dollars hard at work — for Showtime’s benefit

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    We've been so busy keeping up with Congress the past couple of weeks, I just got a chance to focus on the outrageous agreement between the Smithsonian and Showtime, which would create a joint venture called Smithsonian on Demand. Under the agreement, the joint venture would have the right of first refusal over commercial documentaries that rely heavily on Smithsonian collections or staff. Alex blogged about it on Friday.

    So what does this mean in practice? It means that any video and filmmaker who uses the Smithsonian's resources in anything more than a superficial way will be forced to offer it to Showtime on Demand first. This limits competition is so many ways – first, such a requirement reduces the market value for that film, since the filmmaker cannot search for the highest bidder. Second, other competing channels, like PBS and The History Channel, will be completely shut out of the market for a large number of films that rely on Smithsonian material.

    This kind of arrangement might be ok if the Smithsonian was a purely commercial entity, but of course, it is not – according to its FY2005 Annual Report, the Institution receives 75% of its revenue from your taxpayer dollars. It is governed by a Board of Regents appointed from all three branches of government. In sum, it is a public trust, and its collections belong to all of us – not to a cable channel.

    What is also outrageous about this deal is the secretive nature of its details. Kudos to Carl Malamud of the Center for American Progress, who sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request
    to the Smithsonian last week asking for a copy of the “specific details, including a copy of any incorporating or contractual documents,” relating to the formation of the joint venture. EFF is representing him on the FOIA matter.

    Not only should these details be made public, but Congress should also hold hearing on this matter promptly. This privatization of a precious taxpayer asset should not be countenanced.