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‘Kennedys’ miniseries finds new TV home

History Channel turned down biopic, reportedly after pressure from family

Katie Holmes stars as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the eight-part miniseries. Would-be advertisers have been hesitant to buy in. (www.reelzchannel.com)Katie Holmes stars as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the eight-part miniseries. Would-be advertisers have been hesitant to buy in. (www.reelzchannel.com)
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Before ReelzChannel CEO Stan Hubbard bought the broadcast rights to the political hot potato known as "The Kennedys," he watched all eight installments of the miniseries to settle the questions he needed to have answered.

"Was it any good? Is it an abomination of history? Is it Kennedy bashing? Those were three things I wanted to make sure I was comfortable with," Mr. Hubbard says.

The miniseries, originally intended to air on the History Channel, is now slated to air on Reelzchannel starting April 3. Greg Kinnear plays President John F. Kennedy, while Katie Holmes dons the iconic pillbox hat to bring Jackie Kennedy to life. Barry Pepper ("True Grit") and Tom Wilkinson ("Michael Clayton") round out the impressive cast.

The History Channel dumped the miniseries earlier this year on the grounds it didn't measure up to the channel's standards. But that wasn't the whole story. The Hollywood Reporter claimed pressure from Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver helped force the channel's hand in the matter.

Longtime Kennedy adviser Ted Sorensen, who is now deceased, had earlier joined with liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald to blast an early draft of the miniseries, according to the New York Times. History Channel sources claimed the draft leaked before more historians were consulted for accuracy's sake, the newspaper added. Others speculated the film, from openly conservative producer Joel Surnow, might include potshots at the celebrated clan.

Similar politically charged criticism forced CBS to give up plans to air "The Reagans" back in 2003 after conservatives cried foul over how the project showed President Reagan as uncaring toward those with AIDS.

And the 2006 ABC miniseries "The Path to 9/11" drew fire from Democrats for how it portrayed President Clinton's actions in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks.

But no specific claims disputing the historical fidelity of "The Kennedys" have yet been leveled publicly, and Mr. Hubbard says he didn't find anything objectionable as he watched the program.

"I think the historians will look at it and agree it's well-researched and well-documented," Mr. Hubbard says.

The channel isn't rounding up a gaggle of historians to sing the project's praises. Instead, it's offering a "Kennedys" app for mobile phones, which will sync with the broadcast and provide background information related to the events on screen. The channel will also offer a browser version of the app for those who don't own smartphones.

Viewers will decide for themselves come April, but Mr. Hubbard insists the film offers a positive assessment of the 35th president.

"What stands out to me is how complex the family is and the strength of leadership that JFK and Bobby Kennedy had with the Cuban Missile Crisis and civil rights legislation," he says. "They took some pretty unpopular positions that changed the nation for the better."

Reelzchannel, currently available in 60 million homes, lacks the cultural cachet of edgy, premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime, so landing a news-making miniseries seems, on paper, to be just what the channel needs. Lining up advertisers for the broadcast hasn't been easy.

"The ad situation had been a struggle," Mr. Hubbard says bluntly, but adds the time crunch involved with the broadcast is the chief culprit. "We had to do 18 months of proper planning and execution in six weeks."

The buzz over the handoff to ReelzChannel isn't making matters easier.

"There's no question when the History Channel decided not to air this, there was a cloud over it," Mr. Hubbard admits. "Some advertisers have questioned what the controversy is about, and they prefer to stay away from it."

So Reelzchannel offered to show the program to some advertisers to alleviate any qualms. Mr. Hubbard says at least one came on board after getting the chance to see the material.

Even if "The Kennedys" played fast and loose with history, it still might not match the liberties taken in films like Oliver Stone's "JFK." Mr. Hubbard says he is frustrated the film is being held to such a high standard.

"In the end, good stories well told … rise to the surface," he says. "Whatever the historical discussion is, it's best left to after the movie airs."

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