Showtime Networks CEO Matthew Blank raised the ire of the documentary community in March when he inked a deal with the publicly funded Smithsonian Institute to form Smithsonian Networks, a joint venture that will develop branded original content for distribution. But as cultural institutions ache for funding and commercial broadcasters look to cut costs, quicken production timelines and build promotional partnerships, could similar collaborations be far behind?
Its first service, Smithsonian On Demand, will launch in December and feature documentaries, events and shorts on America’s scientific, cultural and historical legacy, as well as kids programming. Showtime will manage the venture and the Smithsonian will provide production and content assistance. The contract also sees Smithsonian Networks get right of first refusal on any commercial programs made with a hefty reliance on the museum’s assets, which many see as limiting filmmakers’ access to the public institution and giving preferential treatment to a commercial entity. A petition began circulating asking that the deal be nullified; more than 200 people signed it, including Michael Moore and PBS’ co-chief program executive, Jacoba Atlas. The Smithsonian says it will comply with the contract. While the pros and cons of the deal are up for debate, the partnership presents an interesting paradigm.