Activists win a round in TV's culture war

In face of conservative ire, CBS pulls Reagan miniseries.

It's a familiar drill in the culture wars: Break out the poster board, fire off letters to advertisers, and take to the airwaves, decrying a piece of art or entertainment that activists believe is inaccurate or beyond the pale of good taste. It's been tried with everything from "Murphy Brown" to "The Passion." What's so unusual is that, this time, it appears to have worked.

Some say it's just a hard-nosed business decision in a cutthroat TV world. Others see a high-stakes war over issues of self-censorship, undue influence, and artistic license.

Either way, the unprecedented decision by CBS television to yank a controversial biopic on Ronald Reagan from public airwaves is spotlighting America's deep divide over conflicting values: political interest vs. "pure" art, free expression vs. corporate profits.

"This is really a major episode in the history of viewer activism against TV networks," says Cathy Newman, author of several books on protests against mass media and a professor of cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. "It is very rare that an entire network backs down to public pressure before broadcast."

Protests from conservatives based on leaked snippets of the script and film have been smoldering since Oct. 21, when news reports claimed the movie contained disrespectful, even false, depictions of the former president. CBS's announcement this week that it will not broadcast "The Reagans" as previously scheduled on Nov. 16 and 18 came after criticism snowballed, charging that the legacy of Ronald Reagan might be unfairly damaged.

But while the announcement that the miniseries would instead be shown on Showtime - with a subscriber base a fraction of CBS's viewership - has brought cries of victory by conservative activists, it also has raised red flags for others over concerns that creative license on TV will increasingly fall victim to attack by political ideologues.

"Are we as Americans looking into a future where dramatic representations are merely PR puff pieces that have met with approval of the people involved? If so, that's dangerous and propaganda," says Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "It is unseemly and uncomfortable that a project would get pulled in response to a constituency that has never even seen the film."

Democratic lawmakers reacted negatively to the decision Tuesday, with Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota saying, "it smells of intimidation to me."

The massive conservative opposition included a website urging an advertiser boycott and public letters from Republican party leaders. If the move heralds a new political chill in Hollywood, then the cooling off has already begun. Nobody associated with the project - from the network to the producers - is talking publicly anymore. Carefully worded statements are available upon request.

CBS maintains the move was necessary because the film "does not represent a balanced portrayal of the Reagans." In a separate statement, producers note that the movie was based on "the script they [CBS] approved," a position that would seem to be supported by remarks from both CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and his first in command, Nancy Tellem, at a July press conference.

"It's very fair," said Mr. Moonves, addressing a room full of TV critics. "It's documented very carefully. I think it's a very interesting piece."

Clearly, say observers, the network was unprepared for the Reagan constituency's passion for its president. "He has been mythologized in a way that only JFK or Lincoln has," says presidential historian Michael Birkner, a professor at Gettysburg College. "He has a meta-image, and his followers are not interested in inconvenient facts, they're interested in things that fit the mythology."

Conservative leaders took the miniseries on as a fight for the soul of their party. "The Reagan legacy as seen in this movie has become a major lightning rod for a host of broadcast and other issues because he is considered by many the conservative superhero of the century," says Doug Ferguson, dean of the communication department at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

In heated discussions on conservative talk radio and TV shows such as "The O'Reilly Factor," wide public criticism has focused on several key issues. One is a reported scene in which Reagan makes a comment about AIDS patients: "They that live in sin shall die in sin." There has also been criticism that the 40th president is portrayed by James Brolin, a noted liberal and husband of liberal activist Barbra Streisand. And there is widespread concern that since Reagan is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, he cannot adequately respond to the film's characterizations of him.

The Republican National Committee asked CBS to screen the film for historians, and RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie suggested the network run a disclaimer "that this is not a film that is supposed to be historically accurate." Brent Bozell, head of the Virginia-based Media Research Center, the largest conservative media watchdog group, sent a letter to 100 top corporate advertisers asking them not to support the biopic.

Many observers say they are shocked that CBS gave in to the pressure. Similar protests about the network's biopic of Adolf Hitler this past May did not prevent that miniseries from airing as scheduled.

Others suggest the move raises questions about the growing impact of large media conglomerates and the clout of advertisers. They feel CBS didn't have to stand firm because it could stem its own losses by shifting the film to Showtime, which is also owned by CBS parent Viacom. The film reportedly cost nearly $10 million to make.

"You wonder if they caved quicker because they had a place to put it," says Matt McAllister, associate professor of communications at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Beyond that, he says, if a boycott begins to target advertisers, "the effect that has is to make the impact of advertising on TV even stronger."

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