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Moonves' Role in the Miniseries Is Questioned

November 05, 2003|Sallie Hofmeister and Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writers

Leslie Moonves is not the type of executive to cave in easily to pressure.

Many industry insiders consider the 54-year-old chairman and chief executive of CBS Television one of the most powerful -- and intimidating -- figures in Hollywood.

"People are terrified of Les," said one senior television executive, referring to the confrontational style that has, along with his creative instincts, defined Moonves' career.

So, many in Hollywood were surprised Tuesday when Viacom Inc.-owned CBS announced that it would not air a four-hour miniseries called "The Reagans," a dramatized biography about former President Reagan and his wife, Nancy. The miniseries, which was moved to Viacom's Showtime pay-TV network, had come under attack from the political right for being inaccurate and inflammatory.

Exactly what triggered the show's exit from CBS -- and what role Moonves played throughout the process -- wasn't immediately clear.

One executive familiar with the situation suggested that Moonves had set a dangerous precedent by bowing to political pressure. Said another source close to Viacom: "It's upsetting and surprising that they [CBS] would run away from it rather than fix it."

Moonves would not comment Tuesday. CBS said in a statement that the miniseries was unfair: "We believe it does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience."

According to people close to Moonves, he groused about the direction of the project when he viewed a rough cut a couple of weeks ago.

"This isn't the movie I thought I was getting," Moonves said, according to one source. The CBS chief was evidently upset that he wasn't seeing the love story that he had ordered. Though Moonves is a staunch Democrat who had strong ties to the Clinton White House, he also was apparently concerned that the tone of the miniseries was unduly sensational.

Even after a second edit, one insider said, "He felt it crossed the line between entertainment and advocacy."

Whatever the real motive behind the shift from CBS to Showtime -- the political heat or Moonves' own disgust with the product -- it was an odd turn for a man more accustomed to fighting to keep things on his airwaves.

In April, Moonves aired the Masters golf tournament despite protests that the club hosting the event denied membership to women. He broadcast a miniseries about Adolf Hitler this year, revising the project to include a postscript regarding the horrors of the Holocaust in response to criticism that it portrayed the dictator too positively. He also wouldn't back down from another lightning-rod project, an unscripted version of the "Beverly Hillbillies," though the series has since languished.

"The Reagans" was scheduled to air Nov. 16 and 18, during the all-important November ratings sweepstakes, when viewership is used to set local advertising rates.

One rival television executive said that from the time "The Reagans" originated in the late '90s, it was not a love story but a portrait of Nancy Reagan as a controlling spouse. First purchased by ABC, the project was dropped and then picked up by CBS, where it was eventually put on a fast production schedule.

How a $10-million miniseries got so far down the track before Moonves weighed in is a mystery -- especially given his reputation as a micromanager. TV executives say he reads scripts of every episode of every show that airs on the network, as well as attends casting sessions.

"If the piece is genuinely biased, how could [Moonves] have developed and shot it without knowing that?" asked a rival network executive.

Several sources say the answer is simple: This was a project that "got away from him," as one put it.

Indeed, keeping tight control over the process has become more difficult as Moonves' responsibilities have expanded over the years. He now oversees CBS News, CBS Sports, Viacom's 39 TV stations, the UPN broadcast network as well as the King World syndication group that distributes "Oprah."

Moonves also is in the middle of a nasty divorce from his wife, Nancy, which friends say has become a distraction.

"I've long wondered how Les oversees two broadcast networks and the station group and can be so involved in creative decisions," said the rival network executive. "Is this a question of having too much on his plate?"

Moonves is one of the longest-running network heads, having joined CBS as president of entertainment in 1995. The onetime actor has his roots in the creative process. Before CBS, he was president of Warner Bros. Television, which at the time produced the largest number of prime-time series, including NBC blockbusters "ER" and "Friends."

Even his enemies -- and there are many who fault his naked ambition -- concede that his track record is impressive.

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