Ehlers wants answers about Smithsonian-Showtime deal

The House Administration Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow into the business ventures of the Smithsonian Institution following criticism and budget cuts by appropriators.

Chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) is seeking answers about an agreement between Smithsonian Business Ventures and CBS/Showtime to create a Smithsonian on Demand channel, which several lawmakers have criticized, notably appropriators Reps. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) and Dave Obey (D-Wis.).

Ehlers said the Showtime deal would not be centerpiece of the hearing but will be addressed. He would not say whether his concerns about the contract echoed those of fellow lawmakers and said he had not spoken to them about it.

Lawmakers say the contract, which has not been made public, would allow the Smithsonian to control access by filmmakers not affiliated with the network, requiring them to go through Showtime to use Smithsonian facilities.

Initially the Smithsonian was reluctant to give the committee a copy of the contract, arguing that it is a proprietary agreement between the institution and CBS/Showtime.

Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, said access would only be limited in very few cases.

“Most of the time — like 99 percent of the time — documentaries are about another subject other than the Smithsonian,” she said.

Filmmakers who quote a curator or film materials from the museums would not be required to work with Showtime, she said.

Access will be limited only when an independent filmmaker asks to use material deemed “significant” by the Smithsonian — for example, on a topic that is “more than incidental in the overall program” — according to the fact sheet released by the institute.

Filmmakers subject to this restriction could approach Smithsonian on Demand and try to reach agreement with its parent, Smithsonian Networks.

St. Thomas added the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, which includes six members of Congress, passed the contract unanimously.

The three House members on the board are Reps. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) and Ralph Regula (R-Ohio). They could not be reached for comment.

According to a May 4 Smithsonian fact sheet, the contract would increase the agency’s income.

“While the Smithsonian Institution is a public institution that receives federal funding each year, it is not a federal agency and cannot carry out its mission using only federal funds allocated each year by Congress,” the fact sheet stated.

Most federal funds given to the Smithsonian are used for maintenance, renovation, operating expenses and salaries, it said.

Smithsonian on Demand is a revenue-producing program that also increases and spreads knowledge, which is part of the institution’s mission, the fact sheet stated.

Smithsonian on Demand will show “original documentaries, events and short-subject explorations of the major scientific, cultural and historical events of the day,” Showtime says.

The channel will be launched in December and will be refreshed monthly for a total of 100 programs a year, Showtime adds.

Still, congressional appropriators are not pleased. George Behan, a spokesman for Dicks, said the lawmaker is annoyed that the Smithsonian did not run the contract by Congress before the terms were agreed.

“The use of a sole source for a 30-year contract is not appropriate,” said a House Appropriations aide and added that there has been a bipartisan request for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into the matter.

The GAO had not received such a request by press time.

Appropriators cut $5.3 million from the Smithsonian budget recently when the institution was reluctant to disclose its contract with Showtime. The Interior Dept bill from which the money was cut also included language limiting the institute’s ability to enter “into a contract or legal agreement” that could restrict “public access to the Smithsonian collections.”

A spokesman for CBS/Showtime did not return a call for comment.

Ehlers will also use tomorrow’s hearing to look into improvements at the National Zoo and the state of the major research facilities run by the Smithsonian Institute, specifically one in Panama.