Showtime signs first-look deal with… the Smithsonian Institution?

No joke. Showtime and the Smithsonian will be launching a joint venture called the Smithsonian Network, which will draw upon the Institution’s vast collections and staff for documentary programming. The catch is that Showtime gets right of first refusal on the projects, and if you’re making a documentary for another network, you might not be able to have full access to the Smithsonian, which, after all, is a public institution. From the NYT:

Under the agreement, the Showtime-Smithsonian joint venture has the right of first refusal to commercial documentaries that rely heavily on Smithsonian collections or staff, said Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian. That means that a filmmaker who does not agree to grant Smithsonian Networks the rights to the film could be denied access to the Smithsonian’s public collections and experts, Ms. St. Thomas said.

“Our collections will continue to be open to researchers and makers of educational documentaries,” she said. In addition, programs that interview a Smithsonian curator as one of several experts on a broad topic like World War II would probably be allowed.

“But if you are doing a one-hour program on forensic anthropology and the history of human bones,” Ms. St. Thomas said, citing a subject on which the Smithsonian has extensive collections and leading experts, “that would be competing with ourselves, because that is the kind of program we will be doing with Showtime On Demand.”

Legal? I guess so. Good for the documentary community? I don’t know.