Smithsonian Deal Was Not Made in Secret, Small Says

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence M. Small defended the Smithsonian's television development deal with CBS/Showtime Networks yesterday, saying the agreement was not reached in secret and that restrictions in the contract would affect only a very small number of filmmakers.

The Smithsonian will not release the contract; it will not even say how long it runs.

Filmmakers have raised questions about the new policy, which can bar independent commercial documentary makers from more than incidental use of Smithsonian materials. When someone wants to make a full program about a Smithsonian object or curator, the Smithsonian can deny access or press the producer to take the project to Showtime.

Small said it is up to the Smithsonian to decide on what films might come under the restrictions.

"Essentially an analysis looking back at all the things the Smithsonian has done over the last 2000-2005 period showed that . . . a teeny, tiny fragment of the totality of what has been done here" would be affected, Small said.

Small spoke to journalists after a closed-door meeting of the Board of Regents, the institution's 17-member governing body headed by John Roberts, chief justice of the Supreme Court. In a letter to the Smithsonian last week, two influential congressmen asked the regents to review the Showtime deal at their meeting.

Small said the regents' response was being drafted and would be sent to Capitol Hill "in the next couple of days." He declined to discuss the regents' reply to Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Smithsonian's federal money, and Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), the ranking minority member.

"[The regents] have done that after a good healthy discussion, and we are in the process of preparing the draft, and we expect that to go out in the next couple of days," said Small. "In deference to the regents and deference to the committee, I don't want to comment on the letter."

Although members of Congress and others have urged the Smithsonian to make the contract public, Small said the deal has a confidentiality clause.

"There is nothing the regents or we can do in terms of making it public because of the confidentiality agreement," Small said. He added that "a vast preponderance" of information about the contract was already public. "It has been amply discussed and divulged," Small said.

Before the contract was signed, the regents discussed the production deal and reviewed the agreement, according to Small. The minutes of those meetings are circulated among lawmakers.

The contract calls for a new service, Smithsonian on Demand, to offer about 100 programs a year, starting in December, to households with digital cable. Showtime is investing millions of dollars in the programming, said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas, and is giving the Smithsonian an annual flat fee.

If successful, said Small, the productions will give the Smithsonian a way to harness some of the new ways the public gets its information. "This whole approach stems from the desire to get the Smithsonian involved in a very fast-growing segment of the world of video on demand and, frankly, reach many more families than the Smithsonian gets as visitors," he said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company