The long-delayed Smithsonian television channel finally made its debut this week on satellite provider DirecTV. The launch ends a lengthy saga of fits and starts and controversy since the Smithsonian Institution first announced its exclusive deal with the Showtime Networks, Inc. to develop a television network nearly two years ago. Originally conceived as an on-demand digital channel, the network debuted on September 26 as a traditional channel with regular programming scheduled 24-hours a day.
However, it is hardly an auspicious debut. Thus far, DirecTV is the only satellite or cable provider in the country that has signed on to carry the Smithsonian Channel. And, since the channel is being broadcast solely in high-definition (HD), it is only available to DirecTV customers who pay an additional fee to receive HD programming and have HD equipment. Negotiations with additional cable and satellite companies are said to be ongoing. Despite the fact that the channel was developed in conjunction with Showtime, none of the programs produced as part of the deal will be seen on Showtime.
In early 2006, the Smithsonian ignited a storm of controversy when it announced that it had entered into a 30-year, semi-exclusive contract with Showtime to create a digital on-demand television channel. Members of Congress and other stakeholders, including the National Coalition for History, raised issues concerning the contract’s potential effects on public access to and use of the Smithsonian’s collections, its confidential nature, and the process by which the Smithsonian negotiated the agreement. However, in December 2006, the Government Accountability Office issued a report finding that the Smithsonian followed its internal contracting guidelines regarding competition, oversight, and conflicts of interest.
The Smithsonian claims that the fears that access to their holdings by filmmakers would be impacted have proved unfounded. From Jan. 1, 2006 to Aug. 3, 2007, the Smithsonian says it received more than 210 requests to film at the Institution. Of these, only two were declined due to the creation of Smithsonian Networks. One request was for a one-hour show, focusing entirely on the Smithsonian and the other was a proposal for a partnership with the Smithsonian on a children’s series. Producers for commercial cable channels made both requests.