Cable Takes a Stand, Beyond the Reach of Reprisals

Times Staff Writer

The television offerings are unapologetically political, and they are airing on the eve of the most hotly contested presidential election in recent memory. Yet in a political season in which charges of partisan manipulation by the media have been commonplace, a glut of left-leaning preelection programs such as “Fahrenheit 9/11: A Movement in Time” has caused nowhere near the uproar sparked by the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s plan to air a film attacking Sen. John F. Kerry.

The cavalcade of anti-Bush administration programming, unlike the proposed Sinclair broadcast, is airing on cable TV -- the Sundance Channel and Independent Film Channel, New York-based networks that reach millions of paying subscribers across the country but fall outside the reach of media regulation that governs the public airwaves. That means there is no government agency to handle complaints, for one thing.

For another, since neither channel carries commercials, they are not vulnerable to the kind of Internet-coordinated advertiser boycott that spooked some investors in Sinclair, which ultimately changed its plans and on Oct. 22 aired a news program instead of the full anti-Kerry film “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal.”


Some on the right have tried to stir up outrage about the cable shows, available on the upper tier of many systems across the country. The conservative National Review ran a commentary noting that Sinclair’s plan “pales in comparison to the political high jinks” at Sundance, which was accused of orchestrating a “Dump George Bush film festival.” Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly also took up the cause.

But the protests have not resonated widely so far.

The Independent Film Channel’s preelection programming includes tonight’s airing of “Fahrenheit 9/11: A Movement in Time,” a half-hour show that looks at the viewers’ response to Michael Moore’s anti-Bush administration film, which earned $119 million at U.S. box offices. (Independent Film Channel is one of the movie’s distributors.)

The channel also put together a last-minute deal for a Monday broadcast of filmmaker David O. Russell’s 35-minute film “Soldiers Pay,” which takes a look at both sides of the Iraq war from the troops’ point of view. The film has some sources who support the war but also looks at pilfering by soldiers and a shortage of supplies.

Sundance, which is partly owned by actor Robert Redford, as well as NBC, Universal and Viacom, has a more extensive political lineup.

On Saturday, it will rerun “National Anthem: Inside the Vote for Change Concert,” a combination of concert footage and interviews with musicians such as Bruce Springsteen who are supporting Kerry’s campaign.

On Monday, the channel will air three films from producer Robert Greenwald: “Unprecedented,” a harsh look at the 2000 vote in Florida, “Uncovered,” about the Iraq war, and the premiere of “Unconstitutional,” about “the erosion of American liberties following the passage of the USA Patriot Act.” Then comes the TV premiere of the film “Bush’s Brain,” a critical look at Bush advisor Karl Rove.

In addition, Sundance plans a live election night special hosted by liberal comedian Al Franken.

Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which monitors TV content, said comparing the Sundance and Independent Film Channel programs to the Sinclair plan was like comparing “apples and broccoli. Sinclair was broadcasting a slanted program over free airwaves and calling it news. Sundance is airing slanted content over paid cable lines and calling it entertainment.”

Sinclair stations, which reach nearly 25% of all U.S. homes with television, are available free over the air in their markets to anyone with a TV set and an antenna -- and local cable systems are required to carry them for their customers as well. “As a trade-off, they serve as trustees for the public interest,” said Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a Sinclair critic. “Sundance doesn’t have that obligation, and as a consequence doesn’t come close to the audience,” he added.

Of 110 million U.S. homes with television, Sundance has 21 million paid subscribers nationwide and the Independent Film Channel has 32 million. But their programs, which aren’t rated by Nielsen, are viewed by just a fraction of those subscribers. Both cable channels are targeted toward upscale, educated viewers.

Evan Shapiro, the Independent Film Channel’s senior vice president of marketing, said the programs weren’t meant to take sides. “These are filmmakers whose voices we believe deserve to be heard.... During the war and this election cycle, mainstream media has served as a filter.... Our young intelligent audience is dying for something that isn’t put through that corporate filter.” He added that if the channel found a legitimate filmmaker with a pro-Bush film, “we’d air it. We have been looking.” Sundance President Larry Aidem noted that his channel’s recent airing of “With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right” had elicited positive e-mail from Bush supporters, and said Sundance is negotiating for the film “Michael Moore Hates America.”

“The strategy was not to be political, or to in a methodical way covet liberal audiences and go lefty,” Aidem said. “We’re about diversity, about shining a light on work that would otherwise never get seen,” he added.

Meanwhile, another pay cable network, Showtime, will air seven student films on the theme of war Monday night. While the movies have strong viewpoints, “they were not meant to be political one way or the other,” said Showtime President Matt Blank. Nonetheless, because Showtime is a cable channel people choose to pay for, he said, “we’re not afraid of controversy.”

Controversy has been the order of the day, though, for many in the broadcast TV world this season, starting with “Fahrenheit 9/11’s” charges that TV networks weren’t critical enough of the president. Then came Robert Greenwald’s “Outfoxed,” which claimed partisan bias at Fox News Channel.

CBS’ use of unverified documents in a report critical of the president’s 1970s military service was attacked as politically motivated.