NEW YORK – The ruckus over a TV movie few have actually seen got even louder Tuesday when CBS decided to dump "The Reagans" miniseries and hand it off to the cable movie channel Showtime (search).
The program was to air on CBS Nov. 16 and 18, smack in the middle of November ratings sweeps. The network said it would license the completed project to Showtime, a pay-cable channel owned by CBS parent Viacom (search).
"Although the miniseries features impressive production values and acting performances, and 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," CBS said in a statement.
A broadcast network has different standards than a pay-cable network, CBS said.
Based on video clips and snippets of the script that had leaked out in recent weeks, Republican-based political groups and Reagan supporters — including the former president's son, Michael — accused CBS of distorting Reagan's legacy.
The TV network insisted it was not bowing to political pressure over the script, details of which were revealed in The New York Times last month, but said the decision was made after viewing the finished film.
But critics scoffed at that explanation, saying CBS had obviously been swayed by politically-driven protests, and worried about the implications of such a move for future works and freedom of expression.
"CBS, in pulling this film, did incredible harm, much more harm than they could ever have done in making the film," said Fox News Watch panelist Neal Gabler, author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality." "What they've told us now is that a very small group of people have censorship power over the broadcast networks."
The flap over the $9 million miniseries began late last month after the Times raised questions about portions of the script that were unflattering to President Ronald Reagan and former first lady Nancy Reagan.
That led to pressure by Republican-based political groups and Reagan supporters, some of whom threatened to boycott CBS and products advertised during the program.
One group, the Media Research Center (search), asked major advertisers to review the script before buying commercial time during the broadcast.
In an unusual move, CBS officials said last week that portions of the movie were unfair and that the film was being re-edited.
It is rare for a network to substantially rework a completed film just weeks before it is scheduled to be shown.
As soon as CBS made the original decision to cut portions of the film, director Robert Allan Ackerman opted out of the editing process and lead actors James Brolin and Judy Davis — who were to play President and Mrs. Reagan — refused to do any publicity interviews for the miniseries, according to a report in Newsweek magazine.
CBS believed it had ordered a love story about Ronald and Nancy Reagan with politics as a backdrop, but instead got a film that crossed the line into advocacy, said a network executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Showtime and CBS are both owned by Viacom, which is anxiously awaiting federal action on rules to restrict ownership of local TV stations. Failure to enact such changes could cost Viacom millions of dollars, said Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy (search), a communications lobbying group.
Viacom needs help from Republicans in the White House and Congress who might not like seeing Reagan portrayed negatively, Chester said.
"They made a business decision," he said. "In doing so, they clearly caved in to the political pressure."
It's not likely CBS faced much pressure from advertisers, said Brad Adgate, analyst for the ad-buying firm Horizon Media. Some advertisers might have been scared by the controversy, but many would have been attracted by the prospect of big ratings, he said.
Though no one who protested the miniseries had seen it, it was condemned by the former president's friends and supporters as unfair and inaccurate.
"This was a left-wing smear of one of the nation's most beloved presidents and CBS got caught," said Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center.
But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said CBS' decision "smells of intimidation to me."
At issue was the way the miniseries reportedly depicted Reagan's unsympathetic attitude toward AIDS victims and how Nancy Reagan was portrayed, among other elements of the program.
Radio talk show host Michael Reagan (search), the president's son, said he had seen eight minutes of movie highlights and Nancy Reagan was depicted as basically running the White House.
"I said to Nancy, they don't like dad, but they hate you," Reagan said Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told CBS President Leslie Moonves (search) in a letter that historians should either review the miniseries for historical accuracy or the network should run a disclaimer that the program was fictional.
Gillespie said the miniseries might have omissions, distortions and exaggerations that could cause Americans to "come away with a misunderstanding of the Reagans and the Reagan administration."
Gillespie, who has not seen the miniseries, said putting the movie before a smaller audience on Showtime doesn't address accuracy concerns. Without changes, Showtime should remind viewers every 10 minutes that the movie is fictional, he said.
Some questioned airing any dramatization of the 92-year-old former president's life while he struggles with Alzheimer's disease (search).
CBS lawyers had reviewed the miniseries and given it the go-ahead, but Moonves ordered lawyers to give it another look and for CBS to cut out certain portions.
Among the parts that were snipped, according to Newsweek, were the inflammatory line "They that live in sin shall die in sin," which Reagan says to Nancy in the miniseries when she asks him to do more for AIDS victims.
Those involved with the project admitted having no proof that Reagan ever made such a statement.
Newsweek reported that footage of Ronald Reagan Jr. (search) doing ballet was also cut.
Showtime released a statement Tuesday saying it would air the miniseries in its entirety "sometime in 2004" along with a televised forum to discuss the controversy.
The cable network said it would work closely with Ackerman and producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.
"Showtime has always been a haven for provocative projects that spark strong audience reactions," the statement said. "The network is planning to provide an on-air forum in conjunction with the airing of the film that will provide a dialogue for those who agree and disagree with its content."
Producers Zadan and Meron said they were disappointed that CBS won't air their miniseries but added: "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."
CBS said its decision to cancel the movie was "based solely on our reaction to seeing the final film, not the controversy that erupted around a draft of the script."
Ironically, CBS' decision came two days after the network's 75th anniversary special, which included a skit by the Smothers Brothers (search) poking fun at CBS for firing them more than 30 years ago because of their political content.
Another precedent came in 1979, when CBS pulled a comedy series about a black congressman after complaints by some actual black politicians who had seen a screening, said TV historian Tim Brooks.
CBS faced pre-broadcast pressure earlier this year from Jewish groups concerned about its miniseries about Adolf Hitler. After some changes were made to the screenplay, the Hitler miniseries aired in May to middling ratings.
It's a growing trend in entertainment: concerned groups not even waiting until something is released to make it a battleground. Actor Mel Gibson has been skirmishing with Jewish groups over his Biblical epic, "The Passion of Christ."
The CBS decision "gives new hope to all of the people who don't like what they see on entertainment television," said Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television (search). "All of the special interest groups can say, 'Look, we got the Reagan docudrama off the air. What's next?'"
Fox News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans and The Associated Press contributed to this report.