Smithsonian TV Contract Spurs Panel To Cut Funds

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2006

The secrecy around the production contract between the Smithsonian Institution and CBS/Showtime Networks prompted lawmakers yesterday to cut $5.3 million from the museum's proposed budget. In addition, a leading Democrat said the leadership of Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small was seriously flawed.

The Smithsonian says the contract requires commercial filmmakers who want to make extensive use of the institution's collections to reach an agreement with Showtime. Smithsonian officials have refused to make the contract public, and members of Congress said they were surprised to learn of the deal through the media.

Last week, Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the federal contribution to the Smithsonian's budget, and Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), the ranking minority member, sent a letter to Small expressing disapproval of the contract. They sharply criticized its goal to limit access to Smithsonian materials for "more than incidental" use by commercial filmmakers unless they reach an agreement with Showtime.

In his written response to the congressmen, Small defended the contract, saying the new venture would expose the Smithsonian's collections to new audiences. He said the institution's board of regents would review the contract at Monday's meeting. Smithsonian officials say the deal could bring in much-needed revenue.

The House panel responded yesterday by including language in the appropriation bill that forbids the Smithsonian to enter any new contract that would "limit access by the public to the Smithsonian collection."

"This exclusive arrangement is inconsistent with a public institution that is largely financed by the American taxpayer, and it was done without any consultation with this committee," said Taylor, chairman of the subcommittee on interior, environment and related agencies.

Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), the ranking minority member of the full House Appropriations Committee, said the Showtime controversy is another sign of missteps by Small.

"I found him through the years to be as crassly commercial as anybody in town," Obey said. "No matter what Mr. Small is paid, and he is paid an exorbitant rate for someone running a public institution, he does not have the right to virtually sell the Smithsonian collections."

According to the Smithsonian's 2003 tax return, the latest one available to the public, Small earned $813,000, including a housing allowance.

Obey said he understood the financial challenges facing the Smithsonian, which last year received $621.3 million from Congress, 70 percent of its total budget. The president's proposal this year was for $644.3 million, but the panel reduced that figure.

"I'm for giving them more money," said Obey. ". . . But I don't think you need to change the Smithsonian into an ATM machine."

Smithsonian officials have a policy on not publicly commenting on the various steps in the appropriation process, which at times doesn't reach a conclusion until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Funds can be added and subtracted along the way by both the House and the Senate.

The Showtime deal, made public in early March, would create Smithsonian on Demand, a programming service that would produce 100 programs a year.

The programs would use Smithsonian materials, but the Smithsonian has set a new policy on access to its archives by other filmmakers. Smithsonian officials said they would deny requests for more than "incidental" use of their holdings "unless the producer and the Smithsonian enter into a co-production arrangement on mutually agreeable commercial terms."

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