Analysis: 'Reagans' a fiasco for CBS

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Nov. 5, 2003 at 8:13 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- As CBS executives wrestled with the public relations dilemma surrounding a TV miniseries about former President Ronald Reagan, the network seemed to have limited options -- and pleasing everyone wasn't among them.

CBS issued a statement Tuesday announcing that it will not broadcast "The Reagans" as planned on Nov. 16 and 18, but denying that the decision was provoked by political pressure from Reagan supporters, who have complained that the program provides a historically inaccurate portrayal of the 40th president.

"This decision is based solely on our reaction to seeing the final film," said the network, "not the controversy that erupted around a draft of the script."

In its statement, CBS praised the filmmakers for "impressive production values and acting performances," and acknowledged that the producers "have sources to verify each scene in the script." However, network brass concluded that -- even after problematic bits were edited -- the four-hour miniseries "does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience."

The decision does not mean that "The Reagans" will never be exhibited. The network announced that it will show the miniseries on Showtime, which is also owned by CBS' parent company, Viacom.

Although CBS insists otherwise, and Daily Variety reported that the network rushed the production to have it ready for the November ratings sweeps, it is a stretch to imagine that if the controversy had not erupted the network would have decided on its own not to televise the program.

Executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who produced the reigning Oscar champ "Chicago," and have a string of critical and commercial TV movie hits to their credit -- including "The Music Man," "Martin and Lewis," "Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows" and "Annie" -- are about as hot as you can get in the entertainment business right now. There can be little doubt that tremendous pressure would have been required for the network to risk offending Zadan and Meron.

The cancelation could have negative economic consequences for the cast and crew. According to the Screen Actors Guild, actors are paid for their performance, and paid again once a program airs. Figures were not available on whether actors would be paid less for a telecast on Showtime than they would have earned for a network telecast.

In any event, CBS has taken a step that cannot help but alienate a significant part of the Hollywood creative community.

No wonder the network said it was "not an easy decision."

It's never easy when the choice comes down to an irresistable force vs. an immovable object. In this case, you might think of the irresistable force as the passionate response of Reagan supporters, including the Republican National Committee, assorted conservative activists, and even a Hollywood icon -- Merv Griffin.

RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie asked CBS to "allow a team of historians ... and a panel of people who actually know the Reagans personally to review (the miniseries) for accuracy." Gillespie also asked that the network run a crawl every 10 minutes informing viewers that the program was fictional.

Several conservative Californians at the center of the recent recall of Gov. Gray Davis set up, one of several Web sites that have served to concentrate the passion of Reagan supporters and direct it at CBS and its advertisers, with the threat of a boycott of sponsors. Howard Kaloogian -- Chairman of the Defend Reagan Committee, and a driving force behind the recall -- called the miniseries a "hatchet job" and part of a "smear campaign" by CBS.

Sal Russo, who was a statehouse intern when Reagan was governor of California, now serves as the Web site's chief political adviser. He told United Press International the network's decision to cancel "The Reagans" was a "victory for accuracy" -- not a political victory.

"I don't think this was political pressure," said Russo. "They could have portrayed Ronald Reagan unflatteringly. I think this was about accuracy and character assassination of one of our great presidents. It wasn't about politics."

However, Russo accused the filmmakers of playing politics.

"When you look at the cast of characters -- (CBS President Leslie) Moonves, who has a history of being an active Democrat liberal, (Barbra) Streisand, and that woman Judy Davis, or whatever her name was -- they all have a history in liberal politics," said Russo.

James Brolin, who played Ronald Reagan in the miniseries, is married to singer Barbra Streisand -- who has come in for particular criticism over "The Reagans" even though she was not involved in the production. Davis, who won an Emmy for her performance as Judy Garland in "Life with Judy Garland," played former first lady Nancy Reagan.

Lou Cannon, who has written several biographies of Ronald Reagan, would not comment on the movie, because he had not seen it. But he said accuracy was an issue when it came to a passage from the script that had been read to him by a New York Times reporter for the Times' Oct. 21 story that ignited the controversy.

The passage -- widely quoted, and eventually dropped from the final product -- made Reagan seem insensitive to AIDS victims by having him say: "They that live in sin shall die in sin."

Cannon told United Press International Reagan was not homophobic and would never have said such a thing.

"That's not in dispute," said Cannon. "In 1978, he opposed this horrible initiative we had in California that would have discriminated against homosexual teachers -- and beat it -- according to most people involved in that."

Cannon said the passionate reaction by Reagan supporters is based on concern that the miniseries was being presented as historical fact.

"How would you like it if someone wrote a story about you and said you were a bigot?" he said.

In a statement issued to the Fox News Channel last week, Nancy Reagan called the timing of the miniseries "absolutely staggering" and "obviously ... very hurtful."

Griffin, a close friend of the Reagans for 40 years, told the Los Angeles Times it was unfair of CBS to air the miniseries in light of the 92-year-old former president's failing health.

"A much-loved president is on his deathbed," said Griffin. "He's in the last stages of Alzheimer's.... For somebody to put out a docudrama, if that's what you want to call it, a fictional drama, without them being able to respond or react, I'd say is extremely cowardly and extremely cruel."

A spokeswoman in Reagan's Los Angeles office told UPI the office does not comment on speculation about Reagan's health, but said there had been no change in his condition. Griffin's use of the term "deathbed" may have been illustrative of the passion that so many of Reagan's supporters and defenders feel for one of the major political figures of the 20th century -- who is also an icon in the modern conservative movement.

CBS did not announce what programming it will use to replace "The Reagans," and did not announce when the miniseries would air on Showtime. The network said its decision was "a solution that benefits everyone involved."

However, a spokeswoman for suggested that the network cancelation might not satisfy Reagan supporters.

"Our ultimate would be to prevent it from being shown at all," said Teri O'Rourke.

Asked whether the group might try to persuade viewers to cancel their subscriptions to Showtime, O'Rourke told UPI her organization hadn't discussed that.

"It's probably worth a try," she said. "But with a short time frame it would be difficult. But we've been known to try things that were a lot more difficult."

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