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CBS nixes its sweeps anchor, ''The Reagans,'' but that doesn't silence the critics

TWO OF A KIND Brolin and Davis
Image credit: The Reagans: Cliff Lipson
TWO OF A KIND Brolin and Davis

For the past few months, Leslie Moonves has been having a grand old party -- and not just his network's 75th-anniversary bash. CBS scored with five out of six of its new shows, and its Thursday-night slate recently topped NBC's once-invincible lineup. (Hell, EW even named the CBS CEO-chairman the most powerful suit in Hollywood.) Then came Election Day, when Moonves announced he was canceling the network's November sweeps centerpiece ''The Reagans'' and passing it off to corporate cousin Showtime.

Did the normally headstrong Moonves cave to outside pressure? It certainly seems so. He yanked the allegedly unsympathetic biopic just days after conservative watchdog groups and red-state talk-show hosts called for a widespread boycott of CBS and its advertisers. Though they had not yet seen the movie, conservative critics objected to the casting of James Brolin, husband of Democratic Party loyalist Barbra Streisand, as the Gipper. The vitriol was fueled by an Oct. 21 New York Times article revealing controversial excerpts from the script (which was partly based on Carl Sferrazza Anthony's 1991 book ''First Ladies''), such as when Reagan denies the need for AIDS-prevention efforts: ''They that live in sin shall die in sin.''

''That's something that Reagan never said,'' insists syndicated talk-show host and self-described ''Republitarian'' Larry Elder, who says he only read excerpts of the script. ''Nancy is portrayed as popping pills. There is a scene in which she slaps her daughter. Reagan, of course, is doddering and forgetful. It struck me as a very unfair, one-sided portrayal.''

''It's the most cowardly thing that I've ever heard of, and cruel,'' says the Reagans' longtime friend Merv Griffin. ''She's been holding his hand for nine years and they have no voice in this. They can't answer these stupid scenes.'' But somebody must have answered for them, at least early on. All broadcast-network telefilms -- from a little confection about a single mom to a potentially incendiary look at one of America's most popular Presidents -- are vetted by Standards and Practices and network attorneys. ''If it were slanderous or libelous, it wouldn't have gotten to this point,'' says Jonathan Estrin, an Emmy-nominated scribe who wrote and produced Showtime's ''Jasper, Texas.'' ''When you are developing true material, a very high standard has to be met and passed through the legal department.''

Yet sources close to the network claim Moonves, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, only recently screened the director's cut and was shocked by the movie's ''strong political point of view.'' (It's safe to assume the network chairman doesn't read every script in development.) One source says Moonves expected ''a love story'' but instead got a film that made Reagan look senile and the First Lady like some kind of White House Mommie Dearest. Once the controversy escalated, Moonves went on CNBC to do damage control. ''There are some edits being made [to try] to present a more fair picture of the Reagans,'' he said. The movie's director, Robert Allan Ackerman, reportedly walked off the project after Moonves demanded a series of cuts (including the now-infamous ''sin'' line).

On the day CBS announced its decision not to air ''The Reagans,'' Moonves wasn't talking, but the network issued a statement: ''Although the miniseries features impressive production values and performances, and the producers have sources to verify each scene, we believe it does not present a balanced portrayal.'' Executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan (the team behind 2001's Emmy-winning ''Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows'') issued a statement of their own: ''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 [will] broadcast it and the public will have a chance to judge 'The Reagans' on its own merits.''

If conservatives couldn't wait to cry foul before even seeing the film, liberals are now equally eager to weigh in on Moonves' decision. ''You can never be surprised when a corporate executive proves gutless, but I was,'' says former Clinton advisor and CNN's Crossfire cohost Paul Begala. ''The point of the docudrama is not to be absolutely historically accurate and certainly should never please one side or the other in a political debate. And that's what CBS has decided -- that they have to cave to the far right.''

If so, caving comes at a cost. By shipping the film off to pay-cabler Showtime, the company could forfeit some serious ad revenue. Still, the lower-profile slot allows corporate parent Viacom to dodge a bit of brouhaha. And Showtime could use some controversy. ''We like doing things that spark reactions,'' says entertainment president Robert Greenblatt. ''Not controversy for the sake of controversy but things that actually get people talking -- and this is certainly that.''

(Additional reporting by Dan Snierson and Allison Hope Weiner)

Originally posted Nov 05, 2003 Published in issue #737 Nov 14, 2003 Order article reprints
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