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Smithsonian Filming Rights Sold to Viacom

When a documentary group seeks to film at the Smithsonian for inclusion in their project, they’re denied because the exclusive rights have been sold to Viacom (Showtime).

We were initially told that our application was being processed by the Smithsonian bureaucracy. In a series of written, e-mail, telephone and personal exchanges with Smithsonian officials we explained what we wanted to do, how we would do it and offered to compensate the museum for any expenses incurred. What we didn’t know was that the institution’s management had concocted a secret, backroom deal with Showtime — granting the premium cable TV channel, owned by media giant Viacom, exclusive rights to control all but “incidental usage” of all video footage shot at the Smithsonian.

In order to film American History, you now need to get the approval of Showtime.

Jeanny Kim, the vice president for media services at Smithsonian Business Ventures, said the filmmakers who were doing “more than an incidental treatment” of a subject mainly from Smithsonian materials or wishing to focus on a Smithsonian curator or scientist would first have to offer the idea to Smithsonian/Showtime.

How could this happen? The Smithsonian exhibits belong to the American people, not a corporation. This should anger all Americans. What next? Renaming to “CBS production of History”? Congress needs to immediately step in and correct the situation. At a minimum:

  1. Publicize the contract details (So far, it’s been reported the Smithsonian has refused to reveal the details). The American public has the right to know who (if anyone) benefited from this deal.
  2. Immediately allow open and free access for any person or group seeking to film in the Smithsonian.
  3. Remove top management of the Smithsonian. They should all resign in embarrassment, but if not they must be shown the door. They have breached their fiduciary duty for the protection of history.
  4. Create new legislation forbidding exclusive contracts for publicly funded groups.

If anything ever deserved a Congressional investigation, this is it. Unfortunately, without the release of the specific contracts, it’s impossible to determine exactly what went on, so we’re left to guess how bad the situation really is. It could be bad, it could be really bad, but without the details we don’t know how, why, or for what reasons this deal was done.

At the least, it looks bad — restricting access to history (which belongs to the people, not a corporation) is unacceptable.

… Lawrence M. Small, the Smithsonian’s top executive, was paid $884,733 last year — more than twice the compensation of the president of the United States.

We also know that last year American taxpayers forked over $615 million to the Smithsonian, and that the institution’s management wants more this year because it is losing money.

Since the new leaders in Congress claim that they intend to “root out waste, fraud and abuse,” they ought to inquire just why the Smithsonian is in the hole. While they are at it, here are a few other questions:

How much did Viacom pay for their exclusive rights to America’s treasures? Was this contract put out to bid so that others could compete for the privilege of broadcasting our nation’s heritage? Were brokers involved? If so, what were they paid? How long will this arrangement remain in effect?

Every American ought to know the answers to these questions. After all, it’s our history. But if America’s heritage is going on the block, it would be nice to know where to start the bidding for the Library of Congress or the National Archives.

More Links (or just Google for “Smithsonian showtime viacom”):

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