Monday, December 18, 2006

That smell from the Smithsonian is not pleasant

Sitting in Chicago I'm imagining the local reaction if the Field Museum were to announce that HBO would now get "semi-exclusive" dibs on filming in its halls, or the Art Institute sold to Disney the "semi-exclusive" use of its artworks in movies. Yea that was about my response too, upon learning early this year that the Smithsonian Institution had sold a tidy piece of its soul to Showtime. The recent Government Accountability Office report on the deal is not even slightly reassuring.

Basically, the museum traded that "semiexclusive" use of its image and contents for promises of national television exposure plus some cash. The GAO found that the Smithsonian "followed its internal contracting guidelines" (whew!) and found no specific ways that the publicly-funded institution violated any laws. But it's not hard to read between the lines that the GAO staff think that the museum was dazzled by Showtime's shiny beads and sold out cheap: "The Smithsonian contends that it will be able to accommodate the same level of filming activity (outside of Showtime) as it has in the past based on its historical analysis of filming contracts. GAO found that this analysis was unreliable because it was based on incomplete data and oversimplified criteria."

And for government auditors this line is pretty scathing: "In addition, concerns have been raised about damage to the Smithsonian’s image and the appropriateness of limiting the use of the collections [which are] held in trust for the American public." What they said!

3 comments:

Harold Henderson said...

Do you know, Paul, in what larger context this inexcusable act of prostitution was committed? Was this an act of ideological drones? Or was it seen internally as an unpleasant but necessary survival tactic at a time when tax dollars that might otherwise have gone to American heritage were being devoted instead to destroying Iraq and reducing the taxes of the wealthy? Not that I am bitter.

Paul Botts said...

Uh oh, we're losing another one. MORE EGGNOG, STAT! And put a double shot in it!!

As far as I can see the Smithsonian staff simply got dazzled by, primarily, the prospect of exposure on a well-known cable channel. Here is some news coverage, and the second link is a back-and-forth with the Smithsonian staff:
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/18/arts/television/18smit.html
http://www.boingboing.net/2006/04/07/smithsonians_showtim.html
The GAO report that I linked above was ordered in response to the uproar; I doubt it will mollify anyone.

As for funding, the Smithsonian is benefiting like everything else in Washington from Bush's astonishing spending (he has raised domestic spending more sharply than any president during my lifetime, which includes LBJ). Deleting all Iraq and Afghanistan costs combined wouldn't come close to eliminating Bush's annual deficits, let alone actually free any current tax dollars. He is still at this writing the only two-term president in history to not veto a single expenditure proposed by Congress.

[That Bush-LBJ spending comparison is not original with me, a number of economists and analysts have made it. The folks it most pisses off are the libertarians:
http://www.cato.org/pubs/tbb/tbb-0510-26.pdf
Note that that report's numbers didn't yet reflect any of Dubya's blank check for Hurricane Katrina rebuilding.]

So it's not surprising that the Smithsonian, for example, has been seeing its federal appropriation rise steadily: from $548 million for FY2002 to $566 million for FY2003, $596 million for FY2004, $615 for FY2005, $622 million for FY2006. They requested a $20 million bump for FY2007 but a House committee voted to deny most of that as punishment for the Showtime deal; I can't quickly tell whether their budget for the current fiscal year has been finalized or no. But the overall point is that the institution can't even plead particular poverty as justification for that deal.

Anonymous said...

Wake up, folks! Bad things happen when good people look for excuses for this kind of attack on our freedoms, because they're afraid they'll be left out of the boondoggle.
The deal is not about making money in cable tv! It is about censorship, and what our children will be taught in the schools. (Do you think the maker of an objective documentary about antidepressants would get a green light from the Smithsonian?)
There are not enough culture-vultures out there to make a home pay-per-view network profitable. BUT, a video-on-demand, pay-per-view (at high group rates) service to schools is a potential goldmine -especially to a media company that already owns book publishers. etc.
The PBS crowd has been curiously silent. I wonder what kind of deal Showtime cut with Burns and Moore????
Both the "sinners and (re)PUBLICANS" and "de mo(c)RATS" were in on this dirty deal.
If you care about our freedoms, let the new Congress know they can make brownie points by putting the squeeze on Showtime to remove ALL the restrictive language, and cut the term to 7 years (or less). Then, Showtime, which has valuable experience and expertise, can go ahead and market the Smithsonian channel in a level playing field.