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'Reagans' Finds Doors Are Open At Showtime

Showtime is hoping CBS's loss will be its gain, having purchased the controversial biopic The Reagans from its broadcast-network cousin.

The inter-Viacom Inc. transfer of the four-hour film about former President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, followed a flood of criticism from conservative groups about critical inaccuracies.

How soon the premium channel will display its heavily publicized purchase was unclear last week. CBS had planned to run the four-hour film in two parts, on Nov. 16 and 18. It was reported Showtime would air it early in 2004, but executives last week weren't ruling rule out a late November or December airing.

"We're still having internal discussions about when to schedule [it]," Showtime executive vice president of original programming Gary Levine said in an interview Friday. "Our intent upon acquiring this movie was to put it on after the first of the year. But as we're looking at scheduling, I can't tell you when it will or won't [air]."

Showtime wouldn't say how much it paid CBS for the rights. Published reports put the price in the $6 million range.

The premium service also wouldn't say what, if any, changes it would make to the CBS version, which stars James Brolin as the former president.

"We know, like and respect the filmmakers and we think there are interesting performances in the movie," Levine said. "We've been here before, and we're thrilled that we have the freedom to provide a forum to talented filmmakers of all different points of view."

Showtime will also air a "forum," or some type of discussion of the film's content with viewpoints from both sides.

"We do like the idea of inviting people of different points of view to discuss the movie, but what form that takes and whether it precedes or follows the movie is still in the planning stage," Levine said.

The sooner the movie airs, the more chance of capitalizing on the controversy's massive publicity.

"It's a boon to Showtime and they need this kind of publicity and hype," said Lifetime Television senior vice president of research Tim Brooks, also a TV historian. "They'll reap a certain number of subscribers who are curious or want to see the movie."

Conservative groups — even without a complete view of the movie — complained it contained inflammatory content that unfairly cast a negative light on the Reagans. They have vowed to keep the pressure on Showtime to significantly edit what they believe is an untrue depiction of the Reagans.

"Viacom would be well-advised to clean this mess up before airing it on Showtime," said a statement from the Media Research Center, which campaigned vigorously to have the current version of the movie pulled from CBS.

Levine said he's not concerned about potential criticism or pressure from conservative groups over the film.

"I would hope that any pressure groups would wait to see the movie in its entirety," he said. "On a broader scale, I would hope they would look at the range of pictures and points of view that Showtime has presented and take it in that context."

Levine said Showtime "will work closely with the filmmakers to get a film that they are proud of and we're happy with and anxious to put on the air."

The Reagans was directed by Robert Allan Ackerman (Showtime's Tennessee Williams' The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone)
and produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago).

This isn't the first time Showtime has provided safe haven for controversial films deemed unfit for ad-supported networks.

In 1996, Showtime aired Bastard Out Of Carolina from Turner Network Television, after then-owner Ted Turner refused to air the TNT-produced film, which included graphic images of child abuse and rape.

R. Thomas Umstead
R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.