Public broadcasting in the U.S. will lose one of its most vibrant and innovative program-makers this fall when Smithsonian Productions is shut down due to cost-cutting measures. The production unit of the Smithsonian Institution will cease operations September 30. Smithsonian Productions created exhibit-related videos and TV docs, including the Emmy Award-winning Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden. The unit was perhaps most renowned for a slate of award-winning radio programs, such as the recent 13 x 1-hour Jazz Singers, hosted by Al Jarreau. ‘They are one of the few entities in this country able to combine radio and TV components to make the sum greater than its parts,’ said Richard H. Madden, VP of radio at the CPB, which has invested more than US$750,000 in Smithsonian programs.
The elimination of Smithsonian Productions was a budgetary decision, said David J. Umansky, director of communications for the Smithsonian Institution. In the Smithsonian’s fiscal year 2002 budget, which is still awaiting final approval in Congress, it received a 2.4 percent increase for salaries and expenses, but that was not enough to cover a federally mandated 3.7 percent raise for its employees. To make up the shortfall, the Smithsonian slashed 180 positions, including the nine-member staff at Smithsonian Productions, Umansky said.
For a media production center, Smithsonian Productions was fairly lean: its 2001 budget was $735,000, according to director Paul Johnson, less than $305,000 of which came out of the Smithsonian’s $386 million in federal appropriations earmarked for salaries and expenses. That budget went to salaries, benefits and operating costs; money for program production was raised from other sources, such as museum funds and grants.
With Smithsonian Productions gone, the individual museum curators and researchers will have to organize funding and outsource the production for radio and TV projects. While there will still be Smithsonian-related docs, the concern among public-radio programmers is that high-quality, innovative productions will become less common. ‘These are fabulous programs, and there is so much rich potential at the Smithsonian,’ said Melinda Ward, senior vice president of PRI Productions. ‘You want to see it grow, not diminish.’