Buyers Worry a Precedent Is Set as CBS Dumps ‘Reagans’

When CBS last week pulled The Reagans from its sweeps schedule, no one was more surprised than advertisers. Although sponsors traditionally shy away from controversial content, even media buyers said the network’s cancellation of its two-part movie smacked of censorship.

The network has denied capitulating to right-wing pressure, but several buyers said the decision not to broadcast The Reagans, originally scheduled to air Nov. 16 and 18, could set a dangerous precedent. “If the networks become even more skittish about exploring American society, politics and culture, it’s ultimately the viewers that lose,” said John Rash, svp and director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun.

In a statement released to explain the cancellation, CBS said the movie “does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans.” CBS executives said no advertiser had pulled out of the telecast, but it was still early for them to withdraw since they had not seen the film. A sales executive from a competing network that has faced a call for advertiser boycotts in the past said, “Advertisers have to do business regularly with CBS, so they wouldn’t want to make this type of decision based on hearsay. They would ask to see the movie before pulling out.”

“I can’t remember the last time a show got pulled because of pressure before it even aired, before it was finished,” said one media buyer. “That’s the troubling part. Maybe the pressure groups will say, ‘It worked here. Maybe it can work elsewhere.’ ”

At issue was the movie’s apparent portrayal of Ronald Reagan as a befuddled president and of Nancy Reagan as a controlling wife. Because the completed film was never distributed, those assessments are based on a 10-minute clip reel the network released last month and on copies of the script that leaked out during the past several weeks.

Following efforts by conservatives to disparage the movie as well as its producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, and its stars, James Brolin and Judy Davis, CBS chairman Les Moonves ordered re-edits of the telefilm, but those efforts proved unsatisfactory.

Among the evidence critics seized on to attack the film as imbalanced was a scene from the script in which Reagan responds to the AIDS crisis by saying, “They that live in sin shall die in sin.” The film’s writers acknowledged Reagan never said that. But for many producers who work in the docudrama format, that is beside the point. “The dramatist’s goal—and obligation—is to offer insight, not facts,” said veteran long-form producer Leonard Hill, who ran ABC’s made-for-TV-movie division from 1976-1980. “The issue isn’t whether you can annotate that a line was said at a certain time and location, verbatim. Rather, is it reasonable to derive from the lines being spoken that the impression conveyed is historically justified?”

Still, entertainment execs far and wide argued that CBS’ decision to dramatize the life of a former president who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and is unable to defend himself was in poor taste. Many also said the network’s 11th-hour cancellation underscored a lack of control of the movie on the part of Moonves, who is known for overseeing most high-profile projects with an iron fist. “They walked to the cliff with their eyes closed on this one,” said a producer familiar with the film.

Ultimately, the cancellation points to the creative limits all ad-supported networks face. “No matter how much broadcasters want to play in the HBO space and produce passion projects that are relevant and topical, they still must deal with outside influences,” said Laura Caraccioli, svp and director at SMG Entertainment.