YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The vetoing of 'Reagans'

How protests and bad timing led CBS to cancel a movie about the former first couple.

November 10, 2003|Meg James, Greg Braxton and Bob Baker | Times Staff Writers

There is one point on which CBS and President Reagan's staunchest defenders can now agree: Love the idea of "The Reagans" or hate it, cheer its network cancellation or condemn it as censorship, the timing of the two-part historical drama turned out to be a colossal mistake.

With the former president in his ninth year of Alzheimer's disease, moral outrage added a potent ingredient to what otherwise might have been a standard liberal-conservative debate. During two weeks of running controversy, conservative pundits rarely missed an opportunity to portray Reagan not merely as a great president wrongfully attacked but as a dying man "unable to defend himself" against critical portions of the script.

CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves had read and approved that script and had spoken admiringly of the project-in-the-making. But according to sources familiar with his decision, he ultimately abandoned "The Reagans" chiefly because he was worried that he and his network would long be pilloried for insensitivity to the still-popular 92-year-old ex-president toward the end of his life.

"The timing," as one CBS exec put it in a mastery of understatement, "was really bad."

The project -- made for almost $10 million, promoted as one of the network's most anticipated projects of the year and booked during November sweeps -- was shuffled off CBS' schedule and onto cable last week after protests that included an estimated 80,000 letters and e-mails, most stirred up by the convergence of conservative talk shows, cable news programs and the Internet. A boycott was launched. Intimidated advertisers began to bail.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
'Chicago' producers -- A story in Monday's Calendar about CBS' decision not to broadcast "The Reagans" mistakenly said that the TV movie's producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, won an Oscar last year for their movie "Chicago." "Chicago" was indeed named best picture of the year but only producer Martin Richards received the Academy Award. As executive producers, Zadan and Meron weren't eligible to take home the statuette.

Never before had a network pulled a major, completed production off the air amid such pressure. This is an account of what happened.

'Balanced' account

For months, Moonves had been saying that the movie, while showing some "warts," would also be a "love story" and a "balanced" account of Reagan's presidency.

"It's a wide-scoping miniseries," he told a group of television critics and reporters July 20. "It deals with Nancy and Ronald Reagan's relationship, their courting, through the governor's mansion, how he became president .... You know, I would say that there are warts that are showing.... But I think it's very fair. It's documented very carefully."

Yet "The Reagans" was always intended to be a controversial show -- something to gin up audience interest and drive ratings during sweeps, the period in which TV stations set their advertising rates.

The casting of James Brolin as Reagan and Judy Davis as Nancy Reagan was one way to stir the pot.

"We haven't asked Barbra Streisand what she thinks about James Brolin playing Ronald Reagan," Moonves jokingly told reporters in July, "but we'll have to live with that." Whose idea was Brolin? The producers of the movie, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, Moonves said.

Although CBS executives insisted last week that "this was not the movie that we thought we were getting," Zadan and Meron have never soft-peddled their movie, nor have they hidden their liberal leanings.

The pair, who last year won an Oscar for their movie "Chicago," have long been involved with projects sympathetic to gays and the issue of AIDS. In 1995 they teamed with Streisand to produce "Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story," based on the real-life story of a lesbian's fight to restore her honor after she was involuntarily discharged from the military.

When the pair initially sold their Reagan project to another network, ABC, five years ago, they said the movie would be largely about Nancy Reagan's role in the White House. They described it to the trade publication Variety as "an unauthorized and unvarnished look at the Reagan presidency." The screenplay would be based on material from the book "First Ladies" by Carl Anthony.

"Everybody wonders when we will have the first female American president, but what will become evident here is that we've already had her," Meron told Variety in April 1998.

ABC eventually pulled out of the project. ABC executives determined the movie would appeal more to an older audience, like that of CBS. The project, produced by Sony Pictures Television, moved to CBS last spring.

From that moment, a source close to the production said, "The Reagans," like other fact-based dramas such as "Hitler" and "Jesus," was given extra scrutiny because of the historical nature and sensitivity of the project.

Several network divisions, including legal, promotions, and standards and practices, examined several drafts of the script from the filmmakers, checking it for accuracy.

When the final script was completed, it was sent to Moonves and CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem, who both gave the project the green light to start shooting in Canada around early summer.

Los Angeles Times Articles