Issue 6: November/December

"The Reagans": What CBS Should Have Done

The black eye CBS inflicted on itself when it buckled under pressure, canceled "The Reagans," and shifted the miniseries to Showtime may have disappeared by now. But what CBS did will have serious consequences for all of television for a very long time. It reminds us of the lessons we learned from another television program that caused an even bigger firestorm than "The Reagans," and was handled very differently.

We were president and chairman, respectively, of PBS in 1980, when "Death of a Princess," a portrayal of the public execution of a young Saudi princess who had been accused of adultery, was scheduled to run on World, the network's news and public affairs series. The government of Saudi Arabia and Mobil Oil, PBS's major underwriter, urged us very publicly not to broadcast the program because it reflected badly on Saudi life. The secretary of state wrote us a letter, released simultaneously to the press, urging us to reevaluate PBS's decision to broadcast the program, given the subject's potential damage to our relations with an important ally. Members of Congress from both parties decried "Death of a Princess," fearing the Saudis would shut off the nation's oil supply and cause a severe economic downturn. The protests against the program made headlines nationwide before anyone even had a chance to see it.

Much as CBS president Les Moonves had reservations about "The Reagans," we too had some reservations about our program, which unlike all other documentaries on World, was a docudrama rather than a purely factual presentation. Because no footage or interviews could be obtained from Saudi Arabia, "Death of a Princess" used actors to recreate actual events, a fact that was made clear up front on the program. Despite our misgivings about docudramas, we felt that the independence of PBS was at stake. It was clear to us then that PBS could not retreat from "Death of a Princess" without compromising the integrity and independence of the network, exactly the dilemma CBS faced. We decided that notwithstanding polls showing public opinion strongly against running the program, the nation's viewers should have the chance to see it for themselves and make their own judgment. In view of the huge controversy, we required (over the bitter protests of the producer) that the broadcast be followed immediately by a special live program that featured representatives of all sides discussing the issues.

However negative public opinion may have been before the broadcast, after "Death of a Princess" aired, the public turned supportive. What started out as the most unpopular program in PBS's history ended up as its highest-rated broadcast. Critics commented after seeing "The Reagans" on cable that it was hard to figure out what all the fuss was about. Viewers of "Death of a Princess" had the same reaction. PBS received applause and awards for standing up to the pressures and preserving its independence against threats from the U.S. government, the Saudis, its own underwriters, and even its own audience.

Take a public opinion poll that asks people if they think a single TV program is worth the cost of a gasoline shortage in winter and their answer, sensibly, would be, "Absolutely not. Cancel it." Ask the very same people if a network should kowtow to threats, arm twisting, and boycotts, and their answer would be exactly the opposite: "Absolutely not. Run it."

CBS made three mistakes in its handling of "The Reagans":

Its first mistake was to produce an entertainment series that focused on President Reagan's personal life while he is suffering from serious illness and being cared for by his wife. That's called bad taste.

Its second mistake was to succumb to outside pressure by abruptly canceling the series and putting it on Showtime, its more restricted cable network. That's called setting a terrible precedent.

CBS's third mistake was to deny that it had caved in to outside pressure and claim it was a "moral call." That's called misleading.

By canceling "The Reagans," CBS set a dangerous example for dealing with the pressures that invariably arise to kill controversial programs before they can be seen. The network's weakness will only encourage future protesters from the left and right to demand that programs they don't like be pulled. Such programs, especially news documentaries on tough issues, are already network television's most endangered species. If "The Reagans" had not been a drama but a legitimate CBS News documentary, would CBS still have canceled it? Instead of running for cover and fobbing off "The Reagans" on Showtime, CBS should have run it, made television time available to give critics and supporters their say, and let the people decide for themselves.

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