There isn’t even a finished script yet, but NBC has already run into trouble with its planned biopic about Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Executives in July announced plans for a miniseries starring Diane Lane that would look at the life and career of the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of State. What angle the miniseries will take is far from clear, but Clinton’s political opponents, expecting her to run for president in 2016, aren’t taking any chances.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus called “Hillary” a “political ad masquerading as an unbiased production,” and the RNC said it would nix NBC from its primary debates if the network went ahead with plans. It also made the same threat with CNN, which is planning a documentary about Clinton.
Although the RNC hasn’t specifically said so, it could also steer GOP ad money away from NBC for upcoming races, costing local stations millions of dollars. “Hillary” is even stirring up internal strife, with NBC newsman Chuck Todd calling it a “total nightmare” for his division given that the miniseries might lead viewers to question whether he and others could cover Clinton fairly.
NBC is thus repeating a lesson networks have learned many times before: Politics and broadcast TV dramatizations don’t mix.
In fact, the network’s top programmer is now backing away from the project, only weeks after touting it as part of an exciting push into “event” programming.
“The Hillary Clinton movie has not been ordered to production, only a script is being written at this time,” Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, said in a statement. “It is ‘in development,’ the first stage of any television series or movie, many of which never go to production. Speculation, demands and declarations pertaining to something that isn’t created or produced yet seem premature.”
NBC declined further comment.
The notion that a Clinton biopic could sway large numbers of voters is unfounded, said Martin Kaplan, the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at USC’s Annenberg School. Clinton has long been a polarizing political figure, he noted, and most people have set opinions of her.
Kaplan, a deputy campaign manager for Walter Mondale’s 1984 White House run, recalled worry that the feature film “The Right Stuff” would tip the vote toward Mondale’s primary opponent, former astronaut and then U.S. Sen. John Glenn.
“But it turned out to make no difference,” he said.
Justified or not, the betting in the TV business is that the Clinton biopic won’t air on NBC or any other broadcast station, for several reasons.
Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have been anathema to conservatives for years — meaning that large numbers of viewers may simply tune out. Then too, any whiff of controversy could keep major advertisers away. And if Clinton does indeed run for president, it’s conceivable that opponents could demand equal time on the network.
“She is one if the front-runners in 2016, so it’s a little risky,” said Brad Adgate, analyst at ad firm Horizon Media, adding that NBC lacks the freedom that a pay-TV outfit such as HBO enjoys.
As a premium-cable network, HBO does not run advertising or political debates, which makes it immune from the kinds of pressures that give pause to broadcast bigwigs. Former GOP vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin blasted “Game Change” — HBO’s 2012 take on the 2008 election, with Julianne Moore as the former Alaska governor — as “biased” and “false.”
HBO executives shrugged and ran the movie, which ended up winning five Emmys.
It’s a different story on broadcast, which is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and depends on big-dollar commercials from major corporations. Viewers may hate the endless political advertising that clogs the airwaves during campaign seasons, but those spots help local stations stay in the black – a fact not lost on network programmers.
While Hollywood is known as a bastion of liberalism, the risk to political TV projects cuts both ways.
A decade ago, CBS shelved plans to air “The Reagans,” about the Republican president and his wife Nancy after a public outcry; the project eventually ran on sister network Showtime.
The 2011 History series “The Kennedys” also came under attack for its no-holds-barred portrayal of the Democratic dynasty, including references to President John F. Kennedy’s womanizing. It eventually ran on the smaller ReelzChannel pay-TV network.
Even when executives do bite the bullet, there can be little payoff to politically themed material. ABC’s 2006 miniseries “The Path to 9/11" was attacked by Democrats who argued that it offered a tendentious and sometimes wholly fabricated version of events in the war on terror.
In that instance, viewers appeared to care much less than politicians did. With a $40-million price tag, the two-part show wound up being beaten in the ratings by a football game.
The planned “Hillary” miniseries, however, would almost certainly draw more attention — and indeed, it already has, even without a script.
“We have seen films leave an imprint on campaigns, as [Michael Moore’s] ‘Fahrenheit 9/11' did impact the conversation in the 2004 campaign,” said Chris Lehane, a lawyer in the Clinton White House. “Even the Clinton video ‘A Man From Hope’ … took a photo of Clinton doing a pro forma handshake with JFK and turned it into a symbol and enduring image for the entire campaign.”
One thing is certain: For the Republicans, attacking “Hillary” is a no-lose proposition. If NBC goes ahead with production, party leaders can take shots at the project for months, firing up partisans who detest the Clinton family. They could even use the miniseries as a basis for an anti-Clinton fundraising appeal.
And if “Hillary” winds up on the scrap heap before it’s even produced, RNC head Priebus can claim that his take-no-prisoners approach led to victory.
“The GOP’s strategic attacks won’t have any influence on NBC, but those attacks rhetorically signal to the GOP base that the party leadership has enough backbone to challenge the ‘liberal media establishment,’” Jeffrey McCall, a media professor at Indiana’s DePauw University, said via email.
“The GOP has gotten a good deal of attention with its righteous outrage, so their efforts are largely successful,” he added.
Kaplan said the dust-up does show the consequences of letting the national political parties have such a big say in how the debates are run. Years ago, he pointed out, the League of Women Voters ran the debates with little interference from the major parties.
“Once we inadvertently gave power over debates to the parties and let networks bid for those eyeballs, there’s always going to be some complaint by some party,” he said.