[Update: FX, Starz and Showtime have all reportedly passed The Kennedys miniseries. While no official statement has been released to explain their decision, many speculate that it was due to fear of political backlash.]
A&E Television, owners of the The History Channel, have declined to pick up The Kennedys, an eight-part miniseries documenting JFK’s rise to the presidency and subsequent assassination.
The series was scheduled to appear on The History Channel later this year, but the network cited problems with the historical accuracy of the production, echoing critics’ comments on the leaked scripts almost a year ago. A&E released a public statement elaborating their decision:
While the film is produced and acted with the highest quality, after viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.
While this is certainly a blow to the big-budget production, it’s unlikely that the miniseries will be shelved completely. The Kennedys is being offered to Showtime, a premium network that’s unlikely to turn down content with such high production values (and shouldn’t have a problem with the historical accuracy – or lack thereof – in the script). There’s certainly precedent for the switch, as Showtime picked up The Reagans when CBS declined it in 2003. There are some startling similarities: both series have drawn criticism from historians and the surviving family that they depict.
The miniseries is an ambitious project. Produced by Muse and Asylum Entertainment, the estimated budget for The Kennedys is a whopping $25 million. Recognizable stars like Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes and Tom Wilkinson fill out the cast, and if early previews are any indication, the overall production is impressive.
Some have wondered if A&E’s ties to the real-life Kennedys were a factor in its decision. Caroline Kennedy, daughter of late former first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis, is currently writing a book on her mother published through Hyperion. The publisher is part of the Disney Empire, which has a partial ownership of A&E Networks and The History Channel by extension. Another member of the Kennedy extended family, Maria Shriver, expressed her displeasure about the series to NBC – which also owns a stake in A&E.
So, did the screenwriters play fast and loose with history or was A&E pushed to abandon the series over its less-than-flattering look at an American icon? Could be a little of both. While any talk of backroom deals between the Kennedy family and network executives is pure speculation, the historical accuracy of the series has been brought into question for almost an entire year. Filmmaker Robert Greenwald created StopKennedySmears.com, a site which chronicles the inadequacies of the show and the critical reaction of historians. One particularly damning quote comes from David Talbot, whose book Brothers: The Hidden History of The Kennedy Years was used as a source for the docu-drama:
It’s soap opera as character assassination and an egregious distortion of the historical record. I’m completely dumbfounded as to how he used my book as one of his sources.
The site has published a victory message on the news of The History Channel declining the series.
It’s also worth considering that a depiction of a presidential family will always carry political implications. Greenwald proudly admits his liberal stance, and while it’s not clear if there’s a conservative bias in The Kennedys depiction, it’s likely that any overtly negative portrayal of a Democratic party hero would rustle feathers in Hollywood. With the current political divide in the United States as vicious as it is, it’s not surprising that a project with so many potential pitfalls has been waylaid.
The show is not the only project focusing on the Kennedy dynasty at the moment. Darren Aronofsky, director of The Wrestler and Black Swan, will direct a biopic focusing on first lady Jackie O. titled Jackie. Aronofsky’s wife Rachel Weisz (of The Mummy and its sequel) is attached to play Onassis.
Meanwhile, we’ll be waiting for news of Showtime’s decision on whether to pick up The Kennedys or not.