It was the biggest media cave-in since CBS pulled a 60 Minutes interview with whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand.
On Tuesday, the network bowed to pressure from the political right -- although the network strongly denied it -- and pulled its planned November miniseries, The Reagans. Instead, the film -- which had been scheduled to air Nov. 16 and 18 -- will air on co-owed Showtime some time in the first half of 2004. CBS said it would announce substitute programming within the next couple of days.
The Wigand interview was pulled in 1994 because the tobacco company he was exposing threatened to sue CBS for billions of dollars at a time when Larry Tisch was trying to sell the network. This time around, the issues are a little less clear, but speculation has been raised that the powers that be at parent Viacom Inc. were perhaps worried about angering the Republicans.
Brent Baker, vice president of the Media Research Center, said he thought CBS bowed more to "grassroots" pressure from groups like his. The MRC wrote a letter to the 100 top advertisers urging them to boycott the miniseries because of its "distorted" view of history.
"[Showtime] obviously can do things that are more controversial than what some of the networks can," said new Showtime president of entertainment Robert Greenblatt. "Public backlash is completely warranted, and that’s fine with us. We make these shows for the audience, not for special interest groups or advertisers."
Showtime executives have seen a rough cut of the movie. They plan to go back into postproduction with the filmmakers. "We can do the film much closer to their original vision than CBS could do," Greenblatt said.
Sources at CBS said that while some advertisers and affiliates had expressed concern, none from either group had actually stated that they wouldn’t participate by pulling their ads or, in the affiliates’ case, not airing it in their market. A CBS spokesman said the company would have no comment beyond the statement issued Tuesday morning.
In that statement, CBS said that despite 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 for CBS and its audience. Subsequent edits that we considered did not address those concerns."
The network added, "A free broadcast network, available to all over the public airwaves, has different standards than media the public must pay to view. We do, however, recognize and respect the filmmakers’ right to have their voice heard and their film seen."
The Showtime deal, CBS said, "is a solution that benefits everyone involved." But while CBS reaches just about the entire U.S. population, Showtime’s subscriber count totals just 20.8 million, according to Nielsen Media Research estimates.