From the network that brought you “Big Brother” comes an act of political self-censorship that would make Orwell weak in the tummy.
Or would it? Maybe we shouldn’t care that the suits at CBS are reneging on their plans to air the quasi-historical miniseries “The Reagans” this month. Is it truly worth a voluminous viewer outcry to defend this potentially unflattering portrait of our 40th president? Don’t we have bigger, more timely Washington fish to fry? When push comes to channel-surf, isn’t this just another overwrought James Brolin outlet that we’d barely remember by Super Bowl Sunday?
For now, we can’t be sure exactly what “The Reagans” is, and that’s the problem. Portions of the script were leaked, and rough-cut footage has circulated among industry elites, but none of us in the greater prime-time constituency can properly evaluate the thing. Worse, CBS execs themselves proved unready or unwilling to define the project as a condensed dramatization, a roiling Oval Office passion play, a hammy nostalgia piece, or a critical deconstruction. Instead, they started meddling with it in post-production, working to temper or excise the more controversial scenes and prompting director Robert Allan Ackerman to walk. Amid mounting buzz about boycott campaigns, a stern plea from the Republican National Committee, and preemptive disapproval from Nancy Reagan herself, the network ultimately cut bait and licensed the inscrutable two-parter — whatever form it may ultimately take — to its fellow Viacom employees over at Showtime.
Until the major networks are willing to take the same programming risks as the dominant cable players, they’ll be chasing each other’s tails in a losing race for deeper relevance. It was Showtime that aired “DC 9/11” back in September, presenting an account of recent events that made some notable diversions from President Bush’s true-life doings. Was it blatantly biased propaganda? Maybe. But at least they aired it and actually let viewers decide. Not so with CBS.
Believe what you will. Maybe it was the simple threat of advertiser outrage that spun the decision, confirming the big networks’ undying loyalty to the bottom line. Or perhaps somebody high up just couldn’t handle the prospect of offending ol’ Dutch and his legacy. In the current climate, the last thing any broadcaster wants to be called is unpatriotic, let alone insensitive toward a 92-year-old Alzheimer’s patient who happens to be an ex-leader of the planet’s dominant superpower.
Fear of being provocative
But in the end, handing off “The Reagans” to Showtime only goes to reflect networks’ lack of willingness to challenge viewers in a truly productive, provocative way. (I personally find CBS’s upcoming “Andy Griffith” reunion special to be more objectionable at face value than anything Brolin has done since “Hotel”.) And if the Eye is so roundly concerned with matters of accuracy, I reckon Dan Rather and his subordinates could ride our sitting president a little harder on lingering questions about the war in Iraq.
At the very least, this high-profile dust-up illuminates the backward semantics of what we may as well call post-reality television. For CBS to tout programs like “Big Brother” and “Survivor” under a “reality TV” banner (knowing full well that their content is vigorously manipulated to achieve certain dramatic effects) and then balk at creative liberties taken by a team of filmmakers and actors (whose given specialty is TV melodrama) borders on delusional. Yes, “The Reagans” takes actual lives and events as source material, and is thereby subject to a more complex kind of scrutiny. But any entry-level First Amendment scholar can explain the accepted vulnerability of public figures, especially those who’ve served as commander-in-chief, in 60 seconds or less. Likewise, a simple disclaimer at the commercial breaks should have been more than enough to satisfy right-leaning watchdogs who lobbied to keep Brolin’s Ronnie off the air. And viewers have a right to be insulted when a network suspends its usual standards for fear of offending certain wealthy and powerful segments of the populace.
What has made NBC’s “The West Wing” such a success is its willingness to reveal White House higher-ups as human beings with tangible problems and pitfalls that intertwine with their careers in public service. (Never mind that more than a handful of diehard viewers would gladly support a real-life Sheen-Janney ticket to challenge Bush in 2004.) You’d think a show like “The Reagans” could have taken that dynamic to intriguing — if not 100 percent factual — heights, no matter what your party affiliation. Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” actually went a long way toward dignifying Tricky Dick’s legacy in the eyes of many, despite its flagrantly theatrical depiction of his vices and shortcomings.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that a project like “The Reagans,” regardless of its agenda, can only achieve so much. It’s a more fearless press corps — not more prime-time White House role-playing — that will best serve the couch-bound electorate.
James Diers is a freelance writer living in St. Paul, Minn.