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Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, June/July 2006

By Tom White

Dear Readers,

Take a region rife with resources. Add a steaming gruel of politics and punditry. Stir in a hefty heap of history, civics, discourse, debate and discussion. What you've got is Washington, DC, a vital nerve center of documentary filmmaking.

"Docuwood," as The Los Angeles Times and The Hollywood Reporter both claim to have anointed the nation's capital, warrants an issue-wide look, and I thank Lauren Cardillo and Pat Aufderheide for their help in making this issue possible. Thanks also to Susan Ivers, Mary Specht, Adrena Ifill, Aviva Kempner, Charlotte Hendrix and Jim Romeo for their contributions.

But the story that has shaken the nationwide documentary community over the past month has been the Smithsonian Institute's deal with Showtime Networks, one struck by Smithsonian Business Ventures Unit in an effort to open a revenue stream in the face of declining support from the federal government. The deal, as most of you know, resulted in Smithsonian Networks, tentatively slated to launch in December as an on-demand cable channel. The basic stipulations of the deal--the Smithsonian would allow "incidental use," at best, of its assets, and anything beyond incidental use would have to be offered, in a sort of "only look" deal, to Smithsonian Networks--would significantly limit access to not only the Smithsonian's prodigious collection, but also its curators. What's more, in the event that filmmakers do exceed the "incidental use" stipulation, this arrangement would seriously undermine their right to offer their work to the highest bidder and would jeopardize longstanding relationships these filmmakers might enjoy with, say, PBS, National Geographic or The History Channel. 

Smithsonian Business Ventures apparently announced this deal without informing the Smithsonian staff first. And there was never a public hearing about it. Given that the Smithsonian was created by an act of the US Congress, and 75 percent of its budget is funded by the American people, the fact that the institute would privatize to this extent has set off alarms not only in the filmmaking community, but also among educators, historians, librarians and attorneys. At press time, Carl Malumud of the Center for American Progress had delivered a letter, signed by hundreds of members of the aforementioned constituencies, to Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small, as well as to members of Congress, asking the Smithsonian to stop the arrangement with Showtime, and hold hearings about this policy with the general public.

At issue here is accountability and transparency. While it's not uncommon for nonprofit organizations to launch separate for-profit ventures, the Smithsonian Institution is too entrenched and revered as a public American institution, charged with safeguarding our national heritage, to go so dramatically against the grain. The stakes are too high and the stakeholders are too many for this agreement to move forward.


Yours in actuality,

Thomas White