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Editorial: CBS Buckles Under ‘Reagans’ Pressure

Nov 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

If we are to take CBS at its word, the decision to dump the miniseries “The Reagans” only two weeks before it was scheduled to air was made because of a last-minute realization that the long-in-the-works project “does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience.”
At the very least, that would seem to suggest a problem at CBS in terms of monitoring its own in-house development. If that is the case, it would be an unusual situation at a network that has run like an efficient machine during much of the Leslie Moonves era. That is the first reason to be skeptical about the spin CBS is putting on its decision. There are others.
There certainly have been ample signals in recent months that this was a controversial project that required close watching within CBS. For weeks there has been an outcry about the casting and content from the Reagan family and a wide range of Republicans, some of whom have called for a boycott of the network and any advertisers on the program. At a time when the government is firmly under GOP control, it is not realistic to think that CBS or any major broadcaster would be unaware that the attacks were linked directly to the highest levels of the Republican Party and the ever-more-powerful conservative movement.
That leads us to the inevitable conclusion that the decision to exile “The Reagans” to corporate sibling Showtime is in fact a result of the current political and cultural climate and the muscle put on the network by these pressure groups. If it is really only about fairness, then why would it air even on Showtime?
If, then, this is a case of caving in to pressure, that presents a very real threat to free speech, and to the right of creative producers to present a point of view. It is not the first time a network has bent in the face of pressure and it won’t be the last. These are businesses that are subject to influence from many directions.
Our concern is that this kind of fear-driven decision-making may become increasingly common as media corporations become larger, more cautious and more bottom-line-oriented. There is no direct link in this case between the decision to dump the Reagan miniseries and CBS’s parent Viacom, and in fact there are vigorous denials of any corporate involvement. However, Viacom frequently has to turn to Washington for help. Currently, for instance, Viacom stands to be a big loser if the Federal Communications Commission’s deregulation is overturned, forcing it to sell some TV stations.
Critics of “The Reagans,” in many cases driven more by vague fear of the project than by any real insight into its substance, made their opposition clear, and CBS listened. Now the network would do well to listen to the many voices of those who are disturbed by what seems to be its willingness to contribute to the suppression of artistic expression and the diminishment of the media by caving in to that kind of pressure.