CBS will not broadcast a miniseries about the legacy of former President Ronald Reagan, conceding yesterday that the production “does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans.”
But the project is still alive and kicking. In a deft scheduling maneuver, CBS will now air the “The Reagans” on cable channel Showtime, owned by Viacom, the parent company to both networks.
“A free broadcast network, available to all over the public airwaves, has different standards than media the public must pay to view,” the network explained in a statement, praising the $9 million production for its “impressive production values and acting performances” and categorizing the decision as “fair.”
But none of it rings true among those who steadfastly maintain the series omitted or distorted historical facts about Mr. Reagan’s presidency while sullying his personal life.
“Misleading a smaller audience of viewers is not a noble response to the legitimate concerns raised about this program,” said Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) yesterday.
CBS is available in 100 million homes; Showtime is seen in 28 million.
The decision “does not address the central concern over historical accuracy,” Mr. Gillespie said, calling for the series to be reviewed for historical accuracy and categorized “a fictionalized portrayal.”
He made a similar request to CBS on Friday, and now suggests Showtime feature an onscreen “crawl” during the broadcast informing viewers that the series was fictional.
CBS spokesman Chris Ender reaffirmed late yesterday that the network still stood by its statement despite continued criticism.
Some cite a greater significance to the hubbub, however.
In an interview Monday with online newsman Matt Drudge, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough noted that a “new media” — talk radio, Internet news sites and other alternative sources — had swayed Viacom, a global media giant.
“That’s in a sense even bigger than the impeachment story that you started breaking in 1998, isn’t it?” Mr Scarborough asked Mr. Drudge, who originally broke the news of President Clinton’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky on his Web site in 1998, sparking a new era in news reporting that bypassed traditional print and broadcast outlets.
“This goes straight to the heart of an issue that who owns the airwaves and, if people have a right to criticize, to talk about things while they’re in production is a whole new way of thinking,” Mr. Drudge replied.
“Back in the Lewinsky era last century, or the Kathleen Willeys, or the [Juanita] Broaddricks, and it’s just an endless series of spiked, suppressed stories. And this was a script that was too hot,” he said. “CBS kept its fingers crossed that no one would expose the details, and it would air and divide a country.”
He added, “If they went and did a Clinton story, there would be just as much outrage, but I think we’re safe to say [CBS President] Les Moonves is not ordering the Clinton saga in any version at this hour.”
But CBS was adamant it was not bowing to public pressure, claiming that their decision “is based solely on our reaction to seeing the final film, not the controversy that erupted around a draft of the script.”
There has been a sizable public eruption from the production, which features a President Reagan character swearing, oblivious to the AIDS crisis and trimmed of his pivotal role in the economic rehabilitation of America during the 1980s.
As Mr. Reagan’s son, Michael Reagan — the talk radio host had viewed footage from the production — told ABC yesterday, “It’s the Ronald Reagan only the Hollywood left knows because that’s the way they want to see him.”
The public got a taste of the series’ content through snippets of the script released to the press in late October. Protests mounted over the next few weeks from, among others, the RNC, the Media Research Center (MRC) and longtime Reagan friend, actor/producer Merv Griffin, who observed that the “C” in CBS stood for “cowardly.”
Others called it downright cruel.
“The original decision to broadcast a factually distorted film about the former president when he is in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s disease showed disgustingly poor taste,” said MRC President Brent Bozell yesterday.
“This is another reason why Viacom would do well to ensure the movie accurately portrays history instead of rewriting history to suit a liberal agenda,” he said, advising Viacom “to clean this mess up before airing it on Showtime.”
Meanwhile, CBS defenders responded.
“The Republicans, who deify President Reagan, cannot stand the fact that some of the more unpleasant truths about his character and presidency might be depicted in the movie,” wrote singer and Democratic activist Barbra Streisand in a public statement on her Web site yesterday.
Her husband, James Brolin, plays Mr. Reagan in the series.
“This is what the Right Wing does when they are faced with a truth that is not 100 percent positive for their side — they spread vicious lies and attacks and scream and yell until they get their way,” Miss Streisand wrote.