Under intense pressure from Republicans and conservative groups, CBS yesterday canned its planned broadcast of the controversial miniseries "The Reagans" and instead licensed the film to the cable network Showtime.
As a result, the four-hour show, starring James Brolin as the former president and Judy Davis as his wife, will be seen by a fraction of the viewers that it would have attracted during its scheduled high-profile network sweeps-week slot Nov. 16 and 18. "The Reagans" will air sometime next year on the pay cable outlet.
Observers said yesterday that it was unprecedented for pressure groups to successfully keep a prestigious show off network television.
"It's clear that CBS has given into the GOP's demands," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. "It's a very bad precedent, and it sends a message to the creative community that no matter how good your work is, it can easily get axed."
Chester pointed out that Viacom, which owns CBS and Showtime, has a "huge political agenda" in Washington with federal action pending on whether a company can own multiple media outlets in one city. "The last thing Viacom needs is to alienate the GOP leaders who can help it," Chester said.
"The Reagans" brouhaha reached Capitol Hill yesterday, too, when Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, told a group of journalists that the CBS decision "smells of intimidation to me."
The controversy erupted last month when The New York Times reported details of the script, which stressed Reagan's forgetfulness and his reportedly negative attitudes about AIDS and gays. Nancy Reagan was painted as a control freak who relied on her astrologer for advice.
A conservative outcry reportedly led the network to call for changes in the final film, which to date has not been seen in its entirety by critics or the public.
In a statement yesterday, CBS said its move to sell off "The Reagans" was "based solely on our reaction to seeing the final film, not the controversy that erupted around a draft of the script."
Although the miniseries includes "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," the network said.
"This was not an easy decision to make," the statement said. "CBS does tackle controversial subjects and provide tough assessments of prominent historical figures and events, as we did with films such as `Jesus,' `9-11,' and `Hitler.' We will continue to do so in the future." A CBS spokeswoman declined to elaborate further.
The move is a huge victory for the Republican National Committee and the watchdog group the Media Research Center. The RNC's chairman, Ed Gillespie, had sent a letter to CBS chairman Leslie Moonves last week, requesting that the series be reviewed by a team of historians for accuracy or that a disclaimer run every 10 minutes during the program indicating the film was fictional.
The Media Research Center had sent letters to 100 corporations urging them to review the script or the movie before buying ads. Conservative cable TV commentators and radio talk-show hosts, including the former president's son Michael Reagan, had also complained about the show.
Conservative groups also took issue with the casting of Brolin, the husband of staunch Democrat Barbra Streisand, as the president.
In a statement yesterday, Gillespie said he was not satisfied with the CBS cancellation. Airing the film on cable "does not address the central concern over historical accuracy. . . . Misleading a smaller audience of viewers is not a noble response to the legitimate concerns raised."
Gillespie said he would now like Showtime to allow a panel of historians to review the film or place disclaimers on the screen.
Last May, critics complained that a CBS miniseries on Adolf Hitler was too sympathetic. The screenplay was rewritten to downplay Hitler's childhood, and the film eventually went on to win an Emmy Award.
Telling the story of a living -- and beloved -- former president, who at 92 is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, was another matter.
Alex Jones, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said he was "sorry" the miniseries wouldn't air on CBS, and predicted the outcome would have been different if another president were depicted.
"Television has an aversion to being on the cutting edge," Jones said. "I think if the unbalanced portrayal had been of the Clintons, that would have probably aired because the Clintons were considered fair game after Monica Lewinsky. Reagan is affectionately remembered by many people, and he's a sick man. It's like kicking him when he's down."
Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-TV, said the controversy demonsrates how hard it is to offer a critical portrait of Reagan in the media.
"One of the frustrating things about Reagan's legacy is that he's often represented as if he was a universally embraced figure and that's just not the case," Boyd said. "A lot of people found fault with his presidency and his policies. But we live in a country where people like Bill O'Reilly have almost unmitigated power. Those people who don't share the mainstream opinion of Reagan get silenced."
For its part, Showtime said in a statement that it will work with director Robert Allan Ackerman and producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron to televise the film in 2004. A source close to the project said yesterday that Showtime will probably air a version closer to the director's original cut.
The network said it would provide an on-air forum alongside the airing to allow for dialogue on the show's content.
Zadan and Meron declined to be interviewed yesterday, but they issued a statement.
"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 has agreed to broadcast it, and the public will have a chance to judge `The Reagans' on its own merits," the producers said.
Suzanne Ryan can be reached at email@example.com