Of the many astounding revelations that came out of CBS' decision to drop its mini-series on Ronald and Nancy Reagan, one of the most befuddling was the logic behind the series' shift to Showtime, which, along with CBS, is part of Viacom's vast media holdings.In a statement reported in the November 6 edition of The New York Times, CBS said, "A free broadcast network, available to all over the airwaves, has different standards than media the public must pay to view."
The statement passed nearly unchallenged in the Times' article, and is worth parsing only because, to many readers, it would come as news that there are any standards at all in television's attempts to depict historical figures or moments. Even a multinight series, as The Reagans was planned to be, typically takes a power sander to the past, smoothing out any contradictions or complexities. Even a Reagan basher, if at all fair-minded, would have to blanch at the historical horrors likely to unfold in an attempt to take on an emblematic figure who looms large not only in recent history, but in the current political landscape.
Consider the recent television treatment of two less prominent characters in American history, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo. The two are the suspects in the Washington, DC sniper attacks, and Muhammad is now standing trial for his life. You wouldn't know that, however, if you were to watch USA Network's portrayal of the attacks that killed 12 last year.
The program was so single-minded in its depiction of their involvement in the murders that you'd assume the pair had already been tried and convicted. Any freshman journalist student could analyze this one: In a courtroom, defendants are innocent until proven guilty and, correspondingly, they're described in news stories as suspects until convicted. But when it comes to television movies, we're not dealing with journalistic standards. Or are we?
Contrary to our better judgment, let's assume for a moment that CBS' decision had nothing to do with either the early conservative backlash or the pending media-ownership issues for which it needs the current Republican administration's support. In the network's response to the crisis that has blown up around the The Reagans, words like "balance" and "fairness" pop up, terms that are far more common to news programming than entertainment.
And, in the story referenced above, a Showtime executive is indirectly quoted as saying that a pay-cable channel is better for a program with a "distinct political view," as the Times' reporter put it. The only way this makes sense is if you consider it from the perspective of a network like Showtime, which isn't relying on money from advertisers who could balk at the first sign of controversy.
From the perspective of the audience, however, it's shockingly unfair and irresponsible. Unless we pretend that cable audiences are significantly more rarified in their knowledge of political history, The Reagans will shape many, many understandings of a vital period in the 20th century. Let's just hope James Brolin gets it right. -firstname.lastname@example.org