- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

Until now, the controversy over the Smithsonian Institution’s partnership with Showtime has centered on two things — transparency and access.

Congressmen who oversee the museum complex were furious last spring when they learned no sooner than the general public that Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small had negotiated a 30-year contract with the premium cable channel.

A coalition of 215 filmmakers and historians, meanwhile, protested mainly the exclusivity of the deal, which will create a digital cable outlet, available in December, called Smithsonian on Demand. The group argues that the contract makes Showtime the primary corporate gatekeeper of the Smithsonian’s vast resources and theoretically could restrict the access of scholars and filmmakers.

Proponents of the Showtime deal insist it won’t affect anyone who merely seeks access to Smithsonian collections — only those, such as filmmakers, who want to use the museum’s resources in a way that’s “more than incidental in the context of the overall program.”

A rather large elephant, however, has gone unnoticed throughout this tussle.

To put it as succinctly as possible: If Larry Small was going to sell out, why on Earth did he have to pick Showtime?

For those stuck in the dark ages of basic cable, Showtime is the snot-nosed provocateur of the for-pay networks. It’s the home of homosexual-themed, shock-the-bourgeoisie series such as “Queer as Folk” and “The L-Word.” It’s the purveyor of “Weeds,” a comedy about a woman who sells marijuana to stay financially afloat after her husband dies.

Later this month, Showtime will debut “Sexual Healing,” a documentary series in which therapist Laura Berman will, according to the network, help real-life couples reach their “full sexual potential.”

According to Broadcasting & Cable magazine, Leslie Moonves, the chief executive officer of Showtime’s corporate parent CBS Corp., said Showtime too often “pander to highbrow TV critics rather than mass TV viewers” and is a “bit too much of an off-off-Broadway play.”

(Not that such envelope-pushing hasn’t come in handy for Mr. Moonves: He was the one who, in 2003, shunted the miniseries “The Reagans” to Showtime when it proved too ideologically tendentious for broadcast TV.)

All the more reason, then, to question not so much the propriety but, rather, the wisdom of the Smithsonian-Showtime deal.

This is not to raise the specter of taxpayer dollars, which account for three-quarters of the Smithsonian’s budget, commingling with “tainted” Showtime money. The deal — or at least the specifics of the deal that Mr. Small has deigned to share with the public — requires no outflow of money from the Smithsonian and guarantees the institution at least $500,000 annually.

Strictly from a financial perspective, at least, Smithsonian on Demand seems like a reasonable, pain-free bargain for a museum system that depends in large part on arguably stingy congressional appropriations and can’t raise admission fees when times are lean.

Indeed, no one faults the institution for trying to balance the books. Carl Malamud of the liberal Center for American Progress wrote in a letter to Mr. Small: “The institution has always been underfunded by the U.S. Congress. It is natural that the management should look [for] creative ways to fund their operations.”

More troubling, for the long term, is that the Smithsonian now seems ensnared in the same thicket as such controversial cultural agencies as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Early evidence of this came in May, when a House panel shaved $15 million from the Smithsonian’s 2007 budget, largely as a result of the shadowy Showtime deal. The measure may have been a symbolic protest, as it’s unlikely the Senate will approve the funding cut.

Yet it was eerily similar to the ideologically supercharged battles of the 1980s and ‘90s, when Republicans condemned outlandish, marginally talented NEA grantees such as Karen Finley and when NEH chair Lynne Cheney tried to limit federal grants for overtly left-wing scholarship.

The 160-year-old Smithsonian Institution is vastly, and rightly, more admired than the NEA and NEH, both of which were founded in the mid-‘60s amid a surge of federal revenue and government expansion. But as more becomes known about the deal with Showtime — and as more Capitol Hill Republicans realize what Showtime itself stands for — it is, alas, not hard to picture the Smithsonian mired in culture-war mud.

Is the Smithsonian’s 10 percent ownership of a boutique cable channel worth the risk of broader political alienation?

At best, what Mr. Small has wrought is a utilitarian alliance between the Smithsonian and an entity that, more often than not, has shown contempt for the Smithsonian’s greatest benefactor — the general public.

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