Smithsonian Hands Over TV Contract

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006

The Smithsonian Institution is locked into its semi-exclusive television contract with Showtime Networks Inc. for 30 years, Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small told a House oversight committee yesterday.

Filmmakers, historians and members of Congress have criticized the contract, which has never been made public.

Small disclosed several other details about the deal:

· The Smithsonian is guaranteed $500,000 a year, and can earn additional money if Smithsonian on Demand, Showtime programming based on Smithsonian holdings, is popular with cable subscribers.

· Showtime invested "tens of millions of dollars upfront" to start Smithsonian on Demand.

· The Smithsonian can do six television programs a year with other filmmakers outside the Showtime contract.

Summoned by the House Administration Committee, chaired by Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), Smithsonian officials explained how the deal originated and what the new partnership means to scholars and historians seeking access to the Smithsonian's voluminous collections and its experts.

The committee was given a copy of the 170-page contract, Ehlers announced as he opened the hearing, but he said he would keep it confidential. He added that the first copy he had received was incomplete. "Large portions of the contract were redacted in the version that was submitted, making it difficult to gain a complete picture of its substance," he said. He thanked Small for providing a full text, but some committee members said they hadn't had time to read the entire document.

Some members of Congress have strenuously objected to the secrecy around the contract. They also complained that it wasn't shared with them before it was announced in March. As a sign of its displeasure the House Appropriations Committee reduced the proposed Smithsonian budget by $20 million.

Yesterday's hearing was the first time Small and Gary M. Beer, chief executive of Smithsonian Business Ventures, the brokers of the Showtime contract, have spoken publicly about the contract. Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) said the unusual aspects of the contract should have prompted the Smithsonian officials to consult Congress.

"We apologize for the hullabaloo this has caused for Congress," Small said.

With the deal, the Smithsonian said, researchers and scholars would continue to have access to the archives and other Smithsonian resources. But commercial filmmakers could make only "incidental" use of the materials unless they were working with Showtime or got special approval. Smithsonian officials have said only a very small number of filmmakers would be affected. Small said that of the 900 media contracts signed between 2000 and 2005, only 17 had more than an incidental use of Smithsonian resources.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company