Earlier this year, the Smithsonian Institution was widely criticized when it announced that it was entering into a contract with Showtime Networks. The agreement, which provides Showtime with primary access to research originating from SI materials, also provides a revenue stream for the financially-pressed Smithsonian. Following various inquiries, including from members of Congress, the General Accountability Office launched a review of the SI-Showtime partnership. On 15 December, the GAO released a 55-page report on its investigation, "Smithsonian Institution: Additional Information Should Be Developed and Provided to Filmmakers on the Impact of the Showtime Contract.GAO-07-275."

According to the GAO, "The Smithsonian followed its internal contacting guidelines regarding competition, oversight, and conflicts of interest. When it began exploring a television venture in 2002, it approached 18 major media companies and negotiated with two before reaching a deal with Showtime. The process was overseen by Smithsonian Business Ventures' (SBV) Board of Directors and the Smithsonian's Board of Regents, who approved the contract in November 2005. When SBV's Chief Executive Office disclosed a potential conflict of interest, the Smithsonian's Ethics Officer reviewed the disclosure in accordance with Smithsonian policies and concluded that no conflict existed. GAO's Ethics Officer concurred with the Smithsonian's decision."

According to Smithsonian projections, the new channel formed by the partnership could reach more than 31 million households by 2010 with a total value of more than $150 million after 10 years. The 30 year contract provides the new partnership with semi-exclusive rights to produce and commercially distribute audiovisual programs using Smithsonian trademarks and/or content in exchange for national television exposure and new revenue.

The GAO report warns about the paucity of information provided by SI and Showtime: "The Smithsonian has been working to implement policies and procedures necessary under the contract since it became effective in January 2006, but the information that it has provided to interested parties has been insufficient. The Smithsonian 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 Smithsonian has created a committee to review filming requests, but does not document in detail its rationale for key decisions or attempt to synthesize these decisions over time. Also, the 'Frequently Asked Questions' on the Smithsonian's Web site provides little information for filmmakers about the new contract."

 


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