Susan Lyne knew it was a bad idea. That's why the ABC Entertainment president passed on what morphed into The Reagans, CBS's now infamous—and now scrubbed—miniseries. "Either you were going to get something very soft, and you weren't going to get an audience for it," she said. "Or you did something where you played up whatever elements you could and ended up having a bad reaction."
Lyne was surprised that CBS would produce a program critical of a popular former president afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. "A lot of people look at him as a god," she said during a meeting with investors last Thursday in Los Angeles. "To take him on at this moment seems a little silly."
For CBS, its decision to green-light the two-parter on the Reagan presidency this month was far more than "a little silly." It was a serious miscalculation that is now costing the network money and prestige. The controversy culminated just days after CBS celebrated its 75th anniversary with a televised pat on the back that touted its history of leadership.
Amid a maelstrom of criticism from Republicans, conservative commentators and Ronald Reagan's family, CBS last week canceled the Nov. 16 and 18 broadcasts and sold the show to Showtime, a pay-TV network that is, like CBS, owned by Viacom.
CBS President Leslie Moonves, who accepted responsibility for the cancellation, said it was based solely on the merits—actually, the lack of merit—of the miniseries, in which, conservatives complained, Reagan was wrongly portrayed as a doddering gay-basher whose wife, Nancy, pulled all the strings.
'We Have to be fair'
"As a broadcast network, we feel [CBS is] a public trust," the New Haven Register reported Moonves telling Yale students last Wednesday. "We have a news division. We have to be fair in what we show, and a pay-cable network can be a little more biased in what they show. It can be an opinion piece. We can't do that."
Moonves's assertions didn't stop grumbling that CBS caved to political pressure at a time when it has major business pending in Washington.
The attacks from political leaders, including Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, caused many to question whether CBS faced an implied threat of government retribution unless it axed the show. If so, such a cave-in carries troubling implications for programmers hoping to air controversial takes on highly charged political issues.
"The kind of pressure exerted here goes on all the time," said First Amendment lawyer John Crigler. "It's insidious."
Moonves's no-go decision comes as CBS and its parent Viacom are fighting congressional legislation that would reverse newly relaxed FCC limits on national TV ownership. If CBS loses, the company would be forced to sell a couple of TV stations it very much wants to keep. The company also owes no small amount of gratitude to the FCC for last week's approval of a DTV antipiracy measure.
On Capitol Hill, the complaints against the miniseries were led largely by a single member: Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who crowed that CBS's decision to cancel "reminds us all that the American people have a strong voice in deciding what is fair and appropriate."
But the Republican National Committee represents the party that controls both houses of Congress and the White House and names the FCC commissioners. "Even if it didn't rise to the level of state action," Crigler said, "I think, when pressure is effective, it is usually invisible. And this time it was clearly effective."
Hot topics off limits?
debacle could lead broadcasters to shy away from similarly hot political targets, says Ronald Collins, a scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. "What happens when a network wants to air a program on gun violence in America? Does pressure from the National Rifle Association mean that's off limits?"
Said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and an opponent of Viacom on the issue of media-ownership limits, "Viacom has caved in to political pressure because the stakes are so high. With the administration's support, it stands to reap billions of dollars, a greater return certainly then even a sweeps-drive TV movie can generate."
Actress/singer and liberal activist Barbra Streisand, whose husband James Brolin portrays Reagan in the miniseries, said CBS "caved" to "an organized Republican spin machine." Indeed, Fox News Channel top talk host, conservative Bill O'Reilly, gave heavy coverage to the controversy, but it was The New York Times that first tipped readers to the tone of the docudrama.
CBS officials, however, reject assertions that political considerations played any role in the decision to chuck the series. "This decision is based solely on our reaction to seeing the final film, not the controversy that erupted around a draft of the script," said their prepared statement. "It does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS."
CBS officials say they received virtually no inquiries from government officials about the program. FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican appointed by President Bush, said contacting the net over the show is "absolutely not" something he would have considered. "All I did was listen to the argument."
Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps said he "would be surprised" if any commissioners contacted the network over the controversy.
Some Democrats on the Hill did weigh in, however. Rep. John Dingell who knocked heads with the Reagan White House in the 1980s, couldn't resist tweaking outraged Republicans and sent Moonves a letter expressing his own "concern" prior to the cancellation announcement. The final cut, Dingell, said should include "$640 Pentagon toilet seats, ketchup as a vegetable, trading arms for hostages" and other scandals that plagued the Reagan administration.
Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle later called the decision to pull the show "appalling." CBS "totally collapsed," he told National Public Radio.
Programming executives say canceling a program after it has been produced is unusual. TV historian Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television's head of research, says canceling any program so close to launch is highly unusual. Had CBS stuck with The Reagans, he noted, the controversy "would have produced a large audience."
One industry source estimated that Viacom could take a loss from the switch to Showtime.
CBS paid an estimated $10 million for the show and turned it over to subscription-only Showtime for $7 million, meaning Viacom will take a $3 million hit that can't be recouped by ad sales aired by the replacements in the time slots.
Additional reporting by Paige Albiniak, Allison Romano and John M. Higgins