Responding to an outcry over how the legacy of Ronald Reagan may play out in a television miniseries, CBS is considering moving its two-night dramatized biography of the former president and his wife to its pay-cable sister network Showtime, or even scrapping the project, sources familiar with the production said Monday.
The debate over "The Reagans" has become a new skirmish in the nation's culture wars, pitting Republicans and conservative pundits against a Hollywood they see as liberal and insensitive to the circumstances of the 92-year-old former chief executive. It has raised concerns about outside pressures influencing the creative process. And it has become part of a long-running, broader controversy over how history should view the 40th president.
In the middle is CBS, which even before Monday had reacted to the protests by making changes in the producers' version of "The Reagans." It is the second time this year that the network has scaled back a major history-based show in the face of public opposition.
"There are some edits being made trying to present a more fair picture of the Reagans," CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves told CNBC last week. CBS and Showtime, whose potential audience is a small fraction of CBS', are both owned by Viacom.
None of the parties involved in the biography -- CBS, Sony Pictures Television or the Storyline production company -- would comment publicly on possible changes, which would be highly unusual responses to outside pressure. A less radical compromise open to CBS would be to delay the miniseries past the scheduled Nov. 16 and 18 air dates, the heart of the November sweeps period.
Critics are particularly concerned about a scene in which Reagan says about AIDS patients: "They that live in sin shall die in sin." Reagan never made such a public remark. While AIDS activists contend such a quote symbolizes Reagan's slow response to the crisis, opponents of the CBS movie say it personifies liberal bias against him.
Further fueling suspicion about the miniseries is that Reagan is portrayed by James Brolin, the husband of singer, actress and liberal activist Barbra Streisand, and that Reagan is in the late stages of Alzheimer's disease and cannot respond to his portrayal.
"A much-loved president is on his deathbed," said Merv Griffin, who has been close to the Reagans for 40 years. "He's in the last stages of Alzheimer's.... For somebody to put out a docudrama, if that's what you want to call it, a fictional drama, without them being able to respond or react, I'd say is extremely cowardly and extremely cruel."
Executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have told colleagues that they have lost control of their movie, with CBS stepping in and taking over its editing, despite initially signing off on the script.
"This decision goes beyond a television movie; it's precedent-setting in bowing down to conservative fringe groups," said a person close to Sony Pictures Television who asked for anonymity. Sony is the production studio for the project. "It creates a whole new environment for censorship on TV," the person added.
There were reports that director Robert Alan Ackerman had quit the film due to creative differences with the network, which these sources disputed. "He has not walked off the movie," one said. "He turned in his edited version, and they are tinkering with it. He has not taken his name off the film, although that does remain an option."
The program has been under fire since the New York Times reported Oct. 21 that the movie contained some unflattering moments. Conservative cable TV and radio talk-show hosts focused on "The Reagans" through the week.
Other early scripts have prompted recent controversies about TV programs and films, including Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ," which some Jewish leaders say could fan anti-Semitism when it is released next year. Protests also greeted CBS' May miniseries about Adolf Hitler's early years. After some critics who'd seen a preliminary version of the script complained that it was not critical enough of Hitler, the screenplay was rewritten to deemphasize his childhood years and play up his evilness.
But complaints over the Reagan movie have created far stronger reverberations. The reason, historians said, is that CBS inadvertently stepped into the lingering controversy over the legacy of the Reagan presidency. As soon as Reagan left the White House in 1989, his admirers, suspicious that liberal media and academics would never portray him fairly, launched a campaign to have at least one public building named for Reagan in each of America's 3,067 counties.
As a result, California has a Ronald Reagan state office building (Downtown Los Angeles), a Ronald Reagan Freeway (Simi Valley), a Ronald Reagan elementary school (Bakersfield) and a Ronald Reagan federal courthouse (Santa Ana), to name just a few. "Perhaps," Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. suggested sarcastically in 2001, "we should simply rename ourselves the Ronald Reagan United States of America."
Reagan admirers say such criticism is hypocritical, given the number of buildings named for John F. Kennedy or Franklin D. Roosevelt. But some historians feel there is a deeper, protective tone to both the Reagan legacy movement and the push against CBS.
Reagan's presidency marked the end to decades of struggles by conservatives to elect a man of their ideology. "They saw Reagan as bringing them out of the wilderness," said Matthew Dallek, a former speechwriter for Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and author of a book about Reagan's first gubernatorial win. "But they're still fighting those wars.... Reagan embodies a much bigger struggle about the role of government in American life: the welfare state, a slew of social issues from Medicare to Social Security, the debate about tax cuts."
Further complicating the debate over the CBS program is Reagan's personality, which has historically been seen as avuncular by his supporters and emotionally distant by his critics. Peter Schweizer, a conservative who last year wrote a book about Reagan's legacy of anticommunism, suggested that part of CBS' problem is that "Reagan can be a difficult man to capture. I think part of that is that he is so disarmingly transparent.... What you see is what you get." Reagan biographer Edmund Morris grew so frustrated in his search for Reagan's character that he resorted to a much-criticized device of inventing characters to share insights about him.
Robert J. Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, said CBS was being pilloried because it had chosen to dramatize recent history. "The longer water is under the bridge, the less likely it is to be controversial." The screenplay is based on "First Ladies," a two-volume collection of profiles of presidential wives by former Nancy Reagan speechwriter Carl Sferrazza Anthony.
Among the protests against CBS: The Republican National Committee late last week asked CBS to screen the film for a team of historians. GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie suggested CBS run a "crawl" reminding the audience "that this is not a film that is supposed to be historically accurate." Brent Bozell, president of the Virginia-based Media Research Center, the largest conservative media watchdog group in the U.S., sent a letter to the country's top 100 corporate advertisers asking them not to support the miniseries. Radio talk-show host Michael Reagan, the former president's eldest son, vented his displeasure. Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis, wrote a commentary for next week's Time magazine but refused immediate comment. Maryland lawyer Michael Paranzino set up a Web site, www.boycottcbs.com, which he said received more than 50,000 e-mails protesting the show.
On the other side was Streisand's personal Web site, which mocked suggestions that she had any effect on the way her husband portrayed Reagan. "What is going on instead is that the Republicans, who deify President Reagan, cannot stand that some of the more unpleasant truths about his character and presidency might be depicted in the movie."
Staff writers Elizabeth Jensen and Paul Brownfield and correspondent Hugh Hart contributed to this report.