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Natural Wonders, Historical Treasures

Mar 16, 2008  •  Post A Comment

“Batwomen of Panama.” “Flying With Condors.” “The Lost Gods.” “Stories From the Vaults.” These are some of the titles in the 120 hours of programming airing on the all-HD Smithsonian Channel.
Launched in September on DirecTV as part of a joint venture between Showtime Networks and the Smithsonian Institution’s Smithsonian Networks, Smithsonian Channel was created to showcase historical, cultural and scientific programming sourced from the museum’s massive portfolio of resources, across multiple distribution channels.
The decision to launch the channel—also carried on Charter, Verizon FiOS and RCN—in all-HD was an easy one. “Right out of the gate, we realized HD was going to be an important feature of our programming, which fits right in with the high quality of the Smithsonian,” said Tom Hayden, general manager of the Smithsonian Channel. “Showtime and HBO in 1999 began transferring our content to HD. It’s in our DNA as premium networks. We were able to future-proof our content for a multiple-platform agenda.”
The Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest of its type, encompasses a complex of 19 museums in Washington and New York, nine research centers and a zoo. The organization’s mission calls for it to be the country’s highest-quality, most extensive provider of authoritative experiences that connect the American people to their historical, cultural and scientific heritage.
More than 136 million items are on display or in storage, including Charles Lindbergh’s plane, the Spirit of St. Louis; Benjamin Franklin’s printing press; the original “Star Spangled Banner” sheet music; the Hope Diamond; and an iron meteorite estimated to be 4.5 billion years old.
For nearly 15 years, the Smithsonian had flirted with various networks, trying to extend its brand to television, before sitting down with Showtime to hammer out the 30-year deal that was signed in December 2005. “We immediately saw the tremendous potential to grow the business, grow the revenue and to develop new television properties,” said Mr. Hayden, who was previously executive VP of Showtime’s direct-to-home division.
Revenue is derived mainly from program license fees, but also will come from advertising and DVD sales. The channel is just beginning to test advertising similar to the PBS model, with messages that do not interrupt the programming.
The lineup is 65% original or co-produced with partners like the BBC and Germany’s ZDF and 35% acquired from film festivals and international networks such as NHK in Japan.
“One thing that distinguishes us is premiere programming that is HD,” said David Royle, executive vice president for programming and production. “A lot of HD is just retread. A channel will announce it is HD. So what they’ll do is take standard definition and bump it up. Our big competitive advantage is we started from day one, and did that believing the audience wants picture quality delivered with 5:1 surround sound. It’s our stamp of quality.
“All of our programming is new to the U.S. market and represents the highest quality and integrity,” he added. “We’ve forged major deals with American filmmakers and leading international broadcasters from around the world.”
New Direction
Market conditions dictated a huge detour in the original business plan for Smithsonian Networks. The initial concept was to launch as a video-on-demand channel because, in 2005, the cable universe was focused in that direction. However, when Mr. Royle and Mr. Hayden went to cable and satellite operators the following year showing the on-demand product, it became clear that linear video was the way to go.
“They got so excited by it, and asked if we could do a full channel,” Mr. Royle recalled. “It was very market driven. There was a lot of enthusiasm for what we were offering from cable, the telcos and satellite operators, all of the multi-video distributors. At the time, the market for HD was just beginning to happen, and they saw it as something that could fulfill customer needs.”
Clearly, the HD marketplace had developed much more quickly than expected. DirecTV in particular had decided that HD linear channels were a better value proposition for consumers, while the cable operators had believed that VOD was a better plan.
For the Smithsonian Channel on-Demand, about 20 to 25 hours of programming refreshed monthly is available in both HD and standard definition. Topics on the channels range from pop culture to history to nature and astronomy, as well as special children’s programming.
In order to market the channels, the Smithsonian is tapping first into its huge base of customers reached through the museums, stores, its Web site and the magazine Smithsonian. They total more than 100 million consumer touch points, according to museum officials. The magazine boasts a readership of 7 million, while the facilities—including the National Air and Space Museum and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—attract more than 22 million visitors annually.
Name Brand
“Smithsonian is one of the biggest, incredibly strong brands recognized, and to a greater extent overseas then we originally thought. In working with the Institution, part of the agreement is to leverage strong brand awareness,” Mr.Hayden said.
Through March, the network is featuring a block of programming on women in science, depicting their work with animal species around the world in a series of documentary specials with titles including “A Woman Among Wolves” and “Wanted: Anaconda.”
The network’s signature series, “Stories From the Vaults” hosted by actor Tom Cavanagh, has been renewed for a second season of seven half-hour episodes and a one-hour special. “Tom’s offbeat and entertaining look behind the scenes at the Smithsonian Institution has proved to be irresistible,” Mr. Royle said. “In the new season, Tom travels to an island in Panama where Smithsonian scientists capture tree sloths and study the sex lives of hermit crabs. He also meets a sculptor who has created a secret code. And he goes on the trail of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.”
Other upcoming programming includes “The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice,” a documentary on rock pioneer Wanda Jackson; a series called “Sound Revolution” hosted by Morgan Freeman, scheduled for the fourth quarter; and an ambitious project filming all of the American states from the air in high definition.

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