Showtime at the museum

Cabler signs on-demand deal with Smithsonian

NEW YORK — The Smithsonian Institution is plunging into the cable-programming business, signing a deal with Showtime Networks to create an on-demand service for cable operators.

The plan is for SOD (Smithsonian On Demand), the official moniker of the service, to open for business in December with a menu of about 40 hours of all-original programming.

Matt Blank, chairman and CEO of Showtime Networks, said the subject matter will range across “major scientific, cultural and historical events of the day,” all told from a nonfiction perspective. Children’s programming will show up in the mix, plus, as SOD puts it, “programs on space, science and nature, history, popular culture, art and design, sports and music.”

“The programs we commission won’t be stodgy museum pieces,” Blank said. “These shows will be cutting-edge and contemporary.”

Showtime will seek monthly license fees from cable operators, but Blank said the ops could offer the on-demand service as a freebie to digital subscribers.

If SOD delivers audience-friendly shows, cable ops could use it as a marketing tool to get more analog customers to upgrade to digital for an extra monthly fee.

Tom Hayden, general manager of SOD, said some of the programs would get 100% financing by Showtime, whose parent company is CBS, and some would be co-financed by Showtime and a production company.

SOD will not burden itself with a big inhouse staff, Hayden said. Hayden and David Royle, executive VP of programming and production for SOD, would come up with the idea for a project and ask for treatments from experienced non-fiction producers. SOD would then commission it from the producer who delivered the best treatment.

Hayden said up to 75% of the programming would come from commissioned projects; the service would buy the remaining 25%.

To beef up its revenues, Blank said that SOD would have the flexibility to take advertising, such as sponsorships of individual shows, steering clear of interrupting the programs by giving the advertiser a spot before the piece begins and another spot after it concludes. But Blank insisted that he’s made no decisions yet on whether to include advertising.

The Smithsonian has a number of scientific and scholarly research centers and publishes the magazines Smithsonian and Air & Space, both of which will supply ideas for SOD TV programs.

Royle, to be based in Washington, D.C., is the former executive VP of production for National Geographic TV & Film. Jeanny Kim, VP of media services for Smithsonian Business Ventures, will manage SOD’s content and production, also from Washington. Hayden will headquarter in New York.