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Why Did CBS Do It?

I am surely the last person left conflicted by CBS's decision to yank The Reagans off its schedule. It was so blatant, it was so weak-hearted, it was so obvious a capitulation to shouting conservatives that, in a way, it was totally surprising that CBS buckled.

On the other hand, the idea of doing the movie was so stupid in the first place that I'm happy I won't get to see it until it airs on Showtime (Slogan: It's Not TV, It's Siberia).

There are many puzzling parts to this story. Let's start with the fact that to have scheduled it flies in the face of what I call the television safe-distance rule. In a nutshell, television networks rarely air controversial programs about real people or events until enough time has passed that the movie is not likely to inflame the masses.

It will be a long time—a very long time, I would guess—before we see a controversial network-TV movie about 9/11. (Showtime's recent DC 9/11: Time of Crisis really doesn't count. It wasn't controversial, and it was on Showtime.) Even before the horrible events of that September day—in the first days of the Bush Administration—Comedy Central aired That's My Bush, and, in addition to not being funny, it never seemed comfortable to watch. It seemed unfair.

When television (CBS, as a matter of fact) wanted to comment on the war in Vietnam, it did it through M*A*S*H, and that was the war in Korea. To have come any closer would have come much too close for Vietnam vets and those who still believed we hadn't finished the job. When television did come too close with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (also on CBS), the network eventually choked the show's anti-Vietnam War humor to death by canceling it in 1969. (How eerily coincidental that Tom and Dick Smothers appeared on CBS's 75th anniversary show two days before The Reagans decision to seemingly bury those bad old days.)

As others have commented, there's also the tastelessness of doing a movie about a guy who was 1) beloved by many millions of young and old, just as 2) he is dying of Alzheimer's disease. Even we who didn't find Reagan so loveable in his earlier days would find it difficult to mount a commercial attack on him at this point. He is an old man who is suffering. It is beyond comprehension for any network to have decided to whack him at this point. It's like kicking a paraplegic.

And then there's the casting of James Brolin as Reagan. From the clips I've seen he wasn't too bad at it, but, in all of Hollywood, I can't believe producers couldn't have found someone who is equally adept but isn't married to a flaming liberal like Barbra Streisand. How did CBS expect Republicans to act? It is not like Brolin is Olivier. He has, except for Traffic, made a string of movies that, well, put the B in Brolin.

So all of that says to me: CBS got what it deserved.

And then the rest of me is shocked. Did CBS and Viacom chicken out? From Redstone to Karmazin to Moonves: yes and yes and yes. These are leaders of the industry, some of the most respected media business folk there are. But they have made the media business far less free than it was just a little while ago.

Does the far right run America? More and more. Yes. And did CBS just give them their biggest media victory ever? Very much so.

For Republicans, deep-sixing The Reagans must seem like a dream sequence. CBS is the symbolic network of smarty-pants Eastern Establishment, of Dan Rather smart-mouthing Richard Nixon, of Maude and Murphy Brown espousing abortion and mocking family values, and, good God, they got CBS to drop a miniseries. In sweeps, yet. This is the network of Harvest of Shame, now shamed itself.

Last week, Mike Luckovitch, the editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution illustrated a panel in which a middle-class couple, sitting in front of their television set, peer at the symbolic CBS "Eye" surrounded by these words: "Everybody Loves Reagan." The guy in his armchair says to his wife, "CBS insists it hasn't caved in to the conservatives."

Everybody gets the joke.