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CBS shuffles "Reagans' off to cable

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Under intense pressure from Republicans and conservative groups, CBS Tuesday canned its planned broadcast of the controversial miniseries The Reagans and instead licensed the film to its sister cable network Showtime.

As a result, the four-hour show, starring James Brolin as the former president and Judy Davis as his wife, will be seen by a fraction of the viewers it would have had during its scheduled high-profile sweeps-week slot Nov. 16 and 18. The Reagans will air sometime next year on the cable network.

Observers said Tuesday it was unprecedented for pressure groups to successfully keep a prestigious show off network television.

"It's clear that CBS has given in to the GOP's demands," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. "It's a very bad precedent, and it sends a message to the creative community that no matter how good your work is, it can easily get axed."

"Indeed, today marks a sad day for artistic freedom _ one of the most important elements of an open and democratic society," Barbra Streisand, the wife of Brolin, said in a statement.

Chester pointed out that Viacom, which owns CBS and Showtime, has a "huge political agenda" in Washington with federal action pending on whether a company can own multiple media outlets in one city. "The last thing Viacom needs is to alienate the GOP leaders who can help it," Chester said.

The Reagans brouhaha reached Capitol Hill on Tuesday, too, when Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told a group of journalists that the CBS decision "smells of intimidation to me."

The controversy erupted last month when the New York Times reported details of the script, which stressed Reagan's forgetfulness and his reportedly negative attitudes about AIDS and gays. Nancy Reagan was painted as a control freak who relied on her astrologer for advice.

A conservative outcry led the network to call for changes in the final film, which to date has not been seen in its entirety by critics or the public.

In a statement Tuesday, CBS said its move to sell off The Reagans was "based solely on our reaction to seeing the final film, not the controversy that erupted around a draft of the script."

Although the miniseries includes "impressive production values and acting performances and although the producers have sources to verify each scene in the script, we believe it does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans," the network said.

"This was not an easy decision to make," the statement said. "CBS does tackle controversial subjects and provide tough assessments of prominent historical figures and events, as we did with films such as Jesus, 9-11 and Hitler. We will continue to do so in the future."

The move is a huge victory for the Republican National Committee and the watchdog group the Media Research Center. The RNC's chairman Ed Gillespie had sent a letter to CBS chairman Leslie Moonves last week, requesting the series be reviewed by a team of historians for accuracy or that a disclaimer run every 10 minutes during the program indicating that the film was fictional.

The Media Research Center had sent letters to 100 corporations urging them to review the script or the movie before buying ads. Conservative cable TV commentators and radio talk show hosts, including the former president's son Michael Reagan, had also complained about the show. The Web site had more than 45,000 hits in less than a week.

Conservative groups also took issue with the casting of Brolin _ the husband of liberal Democrat Streisand _ as the president.

In a statement Tuesday, the RNC's Gillespie said he was not satisfied with the CBS cancellation. Airing the film on cable "does not address the central concern over historical accuracy. . . . Misleading a smaller audience of viewers is not a noble response to the legitimate concerns raised."

Showtime reaches roughly 1-million households compared to CBS' 20-million.

Last May, critics complained that a CBS miniseries on Adolf Hitler was too sympathetic. The screenplay was rewritten to downplay Hitler's childhood, and the film eventually went on to win an Emmy Award.

Telling the story of a living _ and beloved _ former president, who at 92 is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, was another matter.

Alex Jones, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said he was sorry the miniseries wouldn't air on CBS.

"Television has an aversion to being on the cutting edge," Jones said. "I think if the unbalanced portrayal had been of the Clintons, that would have probably aired because the Clintons were considered fair game after Monica Lewinsky. Reagan is affectionately remembered by many people, and he's a sick man. It's like kicking him when he's down."

Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-TV, said the controversy demonstrates how hard it is to offer a critical portrait of Reagan.

"One of the frustrating things about Reagan's legacy is that he's often represented as if he was a universally embraced figure and that's just not the case," Boyd said. "A lot of people found fault with his presidency and his policies. But we live in a country where people like Bill O'Reilly have almost unmitigated power. Those people who don't share the mainstream opinion of Reagan get silenced."

For its part, Showtime said in a statement that it will work with director Robert Allan Ackerman and producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron to televise the film sometime in 2004.

The network said it would provide an on-air forum alongside the airing to allow for dialogue on the show's content.

Zadan and Meron did not comment but issued a statement.

"Although we are disappointed that CBS will not be airing the movie that we produced for them, from the script that they approved, 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," the producers said.

The Reagans actually began life as an ABC production. Zadan and Meron had given ABC ratings hits with musicals like Cinderella with Whitney Houston and biopics about Judy Garland. But ABC passed on The Reagans, in part because it was too soft, a network executive told the New York Times.

But when CBS picked up the project, the storyline had changed. While the network announced that the television movie would be a love story about the Reagans, one executive said the producers had made it clear in several meetings they were aiming to produce a highly controversial film.

That was also the message they conveyed in an article in the New York Times on Oct. 21, which for the first time provided details about the portrayal of the Reagans.

The day the article came out, Moonves cleared his schedule to deal with the television movie, several CBS executives told the New York Times. While he had read at least one draft of the script and had seen one day of the daily film footage, the executives said he had not closely followed the progress of the production.

Moonves emerged from the screening furious, people at CBS said. He alerted the filmmakers that CBS would re-edit the film. One of the first scenes to go was one in which Reagan was shown saying to his wife "They that live in sin shall die in sin" when addressing the AIDS crisis. There is no evidence, the filmmakers conceded, that Reagan ever said that.

_ Information from the New York Times and Denver Post was used in this report.

The scenes in question

Here are a few of the scenes in The Reagans that drew the ire of supporters:

+ President Reagan, responding to Nancy's plea to do something about AIDS, replies, "They that live in sin shall die in sin." The scene has reportedly been edited out for the airing on Showtime.

+ Nancy Reagan is portrayed as a control addict. A scene that implies that she wrote out Al Haig's resignation as secretary of state was also deleted.

+ The film also suggests that the inspiration for Reagan's space-based defense system, Star Wars, was a 1940 movie in which he starred, Murder in the Air. Supporters say the film's significance has been overemphasized by liberals.

The producers

Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, the producing team behind The Reagans, have worked in the television biopic medium several times before. Here are some of their films:

+ Lucy (2003) was a look into the rise of zany Lucille Ball and her lothario husband, Desi Arnaz.

+ Martin and Lewis (2002) detailed the partnership and breakup of the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Lewis, the surviving member of the team, gave the film his blessing when it aired, even though at times he was portrayed as bullying.

+ Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001) starred Judy Davis, who won an Emmy in the title role. The Australian-born Davis plays the part of Nancy in The Reagans.

+ Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story (1995) was an Emmy-winning role for actress Glenn Close, who played the Army medical officer forced to fight for her career after revealing she was gay. Barbra Streisand was also an executive producer on this film. She is married to James Brolin, who plays Ronald Reagan. And Davis also appeared in the film as Cammermeyer's partner, a role she won an Emmy for.

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