By Jacqueline Trescott and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 24, 2007
The Smithsonian's controversial cable television programming will debut Wednesday, but right now only those with a specific satellite dish will be able to see it.
Subscribers to DirecTV, one of two main satellite TV carriers, will have access to the 75 hours of programming from the Smithsonian Channel, produced in cooperation with Showtime Networks, the network will announce today.
Several groups objected to the contract because the Smithsonian signed over to Showtime semi-exclusive rights to produce films built around the national institution's resources.
Since the deal was made public 20 months ago, Smithsonian officials have defended it as a way to make the museums accessible to more people and as a new source of needed money for the museums.
Members of Congress, who control the 70 percent of the budget the Smithsonian receives from the federal government and who also oversee its operations, expressed doubt about the arrangement from the beginning. Both Republicans and Democrats voiced concern about independent filmmakers' access and that the shows would be available only to select viewers who could pay more.
Lawrence M. Small, then secretary of the Smithsonian, described the deal to Congress in May 2006. He promised: "It will come automatically with a cable package. It's not something where people are going to pay for it specifically, and you don't have to sign up for Showtime to get it."
However, in the interim, the business model changed from cable on-demand to satellite high-definition, said Tom Hayden, general manager for Smithsonian Networks and a Showtime executive vice president.
Now the only people who will be able to get the programs are those among DirecTV's 16.3 million subscribers who have a high-definition hookup. The Smithsonian Channel will be part of a high-definition extra tier at $4.99 a month, added to the high-definition activation charge of $9.99 a month and the programming package that costs from $29.99 a month.
Showtime is the producer; the shows, which explore the history, natural world, cultural, and air and space subjects found at the Smithsonian, will not be seen on its network.
The slate includes "Stories From the Vaults" with actor Tom Cavanagh; a history of the blues, narrated by actor Morgan Freeman; a look at wacky festivals around the country; a tribute to the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; and a documentary about the golden tamarinds at the National Zoo.
Hayden said as much as 75 percent of the programming was made for the Smithsonian Networks, while the remaining 25 to 35 percent was acquired from other sources.
Since the television venture was announced, there has been considerable turmoil at the Smithsonian. Three of the top officials have resigned, including Small and Gary M. Beer, chief executive of Smithsonian Business Ventures, the institution's money-making unit and the conduit for the TV deal. Small and Beer were criticized for their expense accounts and management practices.
The first programs were supposed to be on the air more than a year ago.
Several things slowed down the launch, Hayden said. First was the controversy over access. The Smithsonian says that since January 2006 it has processed 228 requests for filming and rejected two. For its part, Showtime did damage control by attending film festivals and meetings with filmmakers.
But Hayden said the principal reason for the delay was the increased interest in high-definition products, which caused the Smithsonian Networks to change its strategy.
The other factor: Satellite and cable operations wanted time to figure out how to present the product and its costs. The agreement with DirecTV is only the first of the distribution deals the network will have, Hayden said.
In a review of the Showtime contract last December, the Government Accountability Office found the deal met standard business practices. According to Smithsonian officials and the GAO, the 30-year contract gives semi-exclusive rights to Showtime and projects that the channel will earn $150 million after 10 years and reach 31 million households. The Smithsonian would initially receive $500,000 a year, with escalation as the contract progresses, and maintain an equity interest. The Smithsonian reserved a number of projects it could do with other companies, but agreed otherwise not to compete with the new venture.
Carl Malamud, president of http://Public.Resource.org, a nonprofit that seeks to make more government information public, had objected to the secrecy of the contract. "I think it is very sad that after a year and a half all they have managed is to snag a DirecTV distribution agreement, when any high school kid can upload a video to YouTube and have 100 million viewers," Malamud said.
David Royle, executive vice president for programming and production of Smithsonian Networks, said he has spent $14 million hiring filmmakers for the project and objections have died down. "An awful lot of people are terribly pleased we are doing this. If I go through the types of films we are making, there are not a lot of people doing this anymore," said Royle, himself an Emmy-Award-winning filmmaker.
The management of SBV is still under scrutiny by the minority staff of the Senate Finance Committee. The inquiry includes a review of the salary and promotions of Jeanny Kim, who manages the Smithsonian side of the joint venture as SBV's vice president of media services.
Kim, a former executive assistant to Beer, was hired in 1999 at an annual salary of $55,000. Beer promoted her five times in six years, and her salary is now $153,000. She also received $125,300 in bonuses between 2000 and 2006. Her salary is paid with funds the Smithsonian receives from Showtime, a spokesperson said.
In May, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) asked the Smithsonian for documents about Kim's employment, but the senator's office has released no further statements.
Active discussions about some sort of Smithsonian TV network go back to 2001. The most promising plan had been a partnership with Starz Encore, a subsidiary of Liberty Media. But that company's board turned down the deal in March 2003, according to SBV minutes.
In February 2006 the Smithsonian and Showtime announced their partnership, signed in December 2005.