Critics blast CBS for buckling under pressure on The Reagans

BY Advocate.com Editors

November 06 2003 12:00 AM ET

Anybody who wants to see the television miniseries The Reagans will now have to pay for it. After taking The Reagans off its schedule in the face of political pressure, CBS said Tuesday it would license the film to Showtime, a corporate cousin and pay cable network with about one fifth of CBS's audience. "A free broadcast network, available to all over the public airwaves, has different standards than media the public must pay to view," CBS said in a statement. "We do, however, recognize and respect the filmmakers' right to have their voice heard and their film seen."

CBS's decision was applauded by fans of the former president, who were worried the film, scheduled to air November 16 and November 18, would distort Ronald Reagan's legacy. "They had to take a look at their own product to find out, in fact, that it was biased, not in favor of Ronald Reagan, didn't show a balanced view of my father, and therefore they pulled it," Michael Reagan, the former president's son, said on CBS's The Early Show Wednesday. Yet critics disgusted by the furor over a movie virtually no one has seen--part of a trend of preemptive strikes on controversial entertainment projects--said a dangerous precedent has been set. "If the decision not to air The Reagans was made in response to political pressure, it will have a chilling effect on future creative efforts in this genre," said Herb Sargent, president of the Writers Guild of America, East. "Even under the threat of advertiser boycott, networks must not allow special interest groups to dictate programming."

CBS said it was not bowing to political pressure but that it was concerned about balance when the movie it ordered as a love story about Ronald and Nancy Reagan turned out politically pointed. CBS had expected the movie to be an important part of its November ratings "sweeps" programming and now has a hole in its schedule. The network didn't say Tuesday what will replace The Reagans.

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. Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center, scoffed at the notion that CBS was stifling free speech. "There is no such thing as creative license to invent falsehoods about people," Bozell said. "I don't care who you are. You don't have that right."

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 PWAs. Supporters of the former president, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, said there's no evidence he said that. "I think that they probably could have gotten great ratings on this had they done it correctly, not putting words in my father's mouth," Michael Reagan said on The Early Show. "I think what they did was, they took away the compassion of my father and really the heart of my dad." There also was a concern about its depiction of Nancy Reagan. The former president's son, a radio talk show host, said he had seen eight minutes of movie highlights and that Nancy Reagan was depicted as basically running the White House. "Showing it on Showtime, where people pay to see it, doesn't really change the product," Michael Reagan said. "It's still a lousy product."

Out producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan (Chicago, It's All Relative) noted that CBS had approved their script in advance. While disappointed by CBS's decision, they said they were pleased Showtime would air the miniseries. 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 company. Some advertisers might have been scared by the controversy, but many would have been attracted by the prospect of big ratings, he said. Ironically, CBS's 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.

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