Here is CBS’s official statement about its decision not to telecast The Reagans:
CBS will not broadcast THE REAGANS on November 16 and 18. This decision is based solely on our reaction to seeing the final film, not the controversy that erupted around a draft of the script.
Although the mini-series features impressive production values and acting performances, and although the producers have sources to verify each scene in the script, we believe it does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience. Subsequent edits that we considered did not address those concerns.
A free broadcast network, available to all over the public airwaves, has different standards than media the public must pay to view. We do, however, recognize and respect the filmmakers’ right to have their voice heard and their film seen. As such, we have reached an agreement to license the exhibition rights for the film to Showtime, a subscriber-based, pay-cable network. We believe this is a solution that benefits everyone involved.
This was not an easy decision to make. CBS does tackle controversial subjects and provide tough assessments of prominent historical figures and events, as we did with films such as “Jesus,” “9-11” and “Hitler.” We will continue to do so in the future.
As a Media Person, I see a lot of press releases, and thus have learned to take most of them with a cellar of salt, but this one is striking for its comprehensive lack of candor. If you were born earlier than this morning, you don’t need me to tell you that CBS decided to pull The Reagans solely and only because of the “controversy.” They didn’t give a damn whether it was “balanced.” All they cared about was whether enough people would watch the series to make it worth broadcasting–and the firestorm of outrage among conservatives, whom one would assume to make up a large part of the target market for a network miniseries about Ronald and Nancy Reagan, left little doubt that such would not be the case.
I’m sure that everybody and his sister will be blogging about this one, and they’ll mostly be right. Of course it’s a new-media story, and of course it wouldn’t have happened five years ago. I’ve been following Big Media’s coverage of the flap over The Reagans, and just two days ago I noted with interest and amusement a wire story claiming that CBS would be pleased by the controversy, since it would inevitably increase the series’ ratings. That is soooooo last year. Those of us who blog, whatever our political persuasions, know better. Boycotts of Big Media have always been feasible in theory. (Newspapers, in case you didn’t know, take cancel-my-subscription-you-bastards letters very seriously–if they get enough of them.) In practice, though, they rarely worked, because it was too difficult to mobilize large-scale support quickly enough. No more. Fox News, talk radio, and the conservative-libertarian sector of the blogosphere have combined to create a giant megaphone through which disaffected right-wing consumers who have a bone to pick with Big Media can now make themselves heard.
All that, as I say, is pretty obvious, and need not be belabored further. Besides, this is an art-and-culture blog, not a political blog, so I want to turn to what I regard as the really interesting part of the story, which is that by relegating The Reagans to Showtime, CBS has publicly acknowledged, albeit implicitly, the growing weakness of Big Media. Now that the common culture is a thing of the past, lowest-common-denominator programming is harder and harder to pull off, as is lowest-common-denominator editing. To do it, you have to keep lowering the denominator further and further. When your overhead is as high as it is at CBS, you can’t afford to give offense, nor can you afford to be sophisticated. Above all, you don’t dare try to lead the culture anywhere it doesn’t care to go–not if your job is to keep your numbers in the black.
The new media impact on Big Media in two ways. The first is the megaphone effect I spoke about a moment ago. The second, which is of at least equal importance, is that they compete with Big Media. If you’re reading these words, you’re not watching CBS, or anybody else, nor are you sitting in a movie theater or reading a print magazine. If you’re using iTunes to download two tunes off Radiohead’s last CD, you’re not buying the CD–though you might do so at some point in the future.
Five years ago, opponents of The Reagans would have failed to sway CBS because of their inability to make enough noise. The network would have taken the “high road” and stared them down, and been praised for its courage by other Big Media outlets. And if it were only a matter of noise, CBS would have done the same thing today…but it isn’t. Today, CBS is fighting for its corporate life. So are NBC, ABC, Time, TV Guide, the Reader’s Digest, and all the film studios and record labels. They can’t afford to ignore the noise anymore, no matter which side of the political fence it comes from. And they won’t.