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Smithsonian, Showtime hit snag

Partnership runs into problems with launch

Is the Smithsonian ready for Showtime?

The partnership between the famed D.C. institution and the pay cabler for a high-def net featuring historical and cultural programming is running into some bumps in the road.

Negotiations with operators for carriage are stretching months beyond the parties’ estimates.

At one point, Showtime execs were making assurances that carriage deals would be in place by the end of June for a planned September launch.

But those deals have yet to materialize. Net was close to a pact with Verizon’s FIOS service, but it fell through, and a Comcast rep told Daily Variety last week that talks with Showtime were simply “preliminary” — not an encouraging sign for a net a few weeks away from launch.

As carriage negotiations linger on, insiders say the September launch could be pushed back.

Showtime announced back in April 2006 that it would form Smithsonian Networks, a joint venture with the org for an on-demand net (it has since become a linear channel as well) in a bid to get into an increasingly popular version of high-def programming practiced by nets such as Discovery and National Geographic.

But the deal immediately drew fire from public-interest groups and documakers, who said that by making a proprietary deal with a pay web — and by giving the net the right of first refusal — the Smithsonian was cutting off an important source of footage for filmmakers.

Several hundred activists and filmmakers — including Michael Moore, Anna Deavere Smith and Lawrence Lessig — signed and published a letter registering their opposition.

Among the shows planned for the net are the Tom Cavanagh-hosted “Stories From the Vaults,” which peeks behind the scenes of the institution and “Critter Quest,” a kids-aimed show about nature. Execs at several operators, which reportedly are being asked to pay a monthly fee of between 30¢ and 35¢ per sub, said they very much liked the programming.

Some observers are also questioning whether a new regime at the Smithsonian could nix the deal. One source said acting secretary Cristian Samper is charged with a review of all business arrangements, including the Showtime deal.

Several execs have been swept out at the group under a shadow, including secretary Lawrence Small and Gary Beer, topper of the org’s biz unit. A permanent replacement for Small is expected to be named soon.

Showtime has maintained that the new regime fully supports the project. “We are close to deals with a number of distributors and we look forward to making our announcement in the near future,” said a rep for the cabler.

A Smithsonian rep said, “We’re still committed to the contract and are working with Showtime.”

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