CBS pulls Reagan miniseries
Movie to go to Showtime
NEW YORK (AP) -- Capping an extraordinary conservative furor over a movie virtually no one has seen, CBS said Tuesday it will not air "The Reagans" and shunt it off to the Showtime cable network instead.
Based on snippets of the script that had leaked out in recent weeks, conservatives, including the son of the former president, accused CBS of distorting the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
While CBS said it was not bowing to political pressure, critics said that was exactly the case, and worried about the effects of such pre-emptive strikes on future work.
CBS believed it had ordered a love story about Ronald and Nancy Reagan with politics as a backdrop, but instead got a film that crossed the line into advocacy, said a network executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The film had been scheduled to air November 16 and 18, in the heart of the November ratings sweeps. CBS attempted to edit the film to remove offending passages, but gave up.
"We believe it does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience," the network said in a statement Tuesday.
Neal Gabler, author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality," said CBS' decision was unhealthy for democracy.
"CBS, in pulling this film, did incredible harm, much more harm than they could ever have done in making the film," Gabler said. "What they've told us now is that a very small group of people have censorship power over the broadcast networks."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said CBS' decision "smells of intimidation to me."
'They made a business decision'
But conservatives said it was a question of accuracy.
The miniseries became a hot topic on talk radio and the TV news networks. The chairman of the Republican National Committee wrote to CBS President Leslie Moonves, asking for historians to review the movie, and the conservative Media Research Center asked advertisers to consider boycotting the film.
"This was a left-wing smear of one of the nation's most beloved presidents and CBS got caught," said Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said putting the movie before a smaller audience on Showtime doesn't address accuracy concerns. Without changes, Showtime should remind viewers every 10 minutes that the movie is fictional, he said.
Showtime and CBS are both owned by Viacom, which is anxiously awaiting federal action on rules to restrict ownership of local TV stations. Failure to enact such changes could cost Viacom millions of dollars, said Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy, a communications lobbying group.
Viacom needs help from Republicans in the White House and Congress who might not like seeing Reagan portrayed negatively, Chester said.
"They made a business decision," he said. "In doing so, they clearly caved in to the political pressure."
It's not likely CBS faced much pressure from advertisers, said Brad Adgate, analyst for Horizon Media, an ad-buying firm. Some advertisers might have been scared by the controversy, but many would have been attracted by the prospect of big ratings, he said.
The movie was made by producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who also made "Martin and Lewis" for CBS. James Brolin portrayed Reagan. He is married to the outspoken liberal Barbra Streisand, which drew complaints from some conservatives.
In a portion of the script published in The New York Times last month, Reagan was depicted as uncaring and judgmental toward people with AIDS. "They that live in sin shall die in sin," Reagan's character tells his wife as she begs him to help AIDS victims.
Supporters of the former president, who suffers from Alzheimer's Disease, said there's no evidence he said that.
There was also a concern about its depiction of Nancy Reagan. The former president's son, radio talk show host Michael Reagan, said he had seen eight minutes of movie highlights and Nancy Reagan was depicted as basically running the White House.
"I said to Nancy, they don't like dad, but they hate you," Reagan said Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Producers Zadan and Meron noted that CBS had approved their script. Although disappointed that CBS won't air it, "we are excited that Showtime has agreed to broadcast it and the public will have a chance to judge 'The Reagans' on its own merits."
CBS said its decision to cancel the movie was "based solely on our reaction to seeing the final film, not the controversy that erupted around a draft of the script."
Ironically, CBS' decision came two days after the network's 75th anniversary special, which included a skit by the Smothers Brothers poking fun at CBS for firing them more than 30 years ago because of their political content.
Another precedent came in 1979, when CBS pulled a comedy series about a black congressman after complaints by some actual black politicians who had seen a screening, said TV historian Tim Brooks.
CBS faced pre-broadcast pressure earlier this year from Jewish groups concerned about its miniseries about Adolf Hitler. After some changes were made to the screenplay, the Hitler miniseries aired in May to middling ratings.
It's a growing trend in entertainment: concerned groups not even waiting until something is released to make it a battleground. Actor Mel Gibson has been skirmishing with Jewish groups over his Biblical epic, "The Passion of Christ."
The CBS decision "gives new hope to all of the people who don't like what they see on entertainment television," said Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "All of the special interest groups can say, 'look, we got the Reagan docudrama off the air. What's next?"
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