This article was updated at 6:45 p.m.
Leslie Moonves is fighting back.
The CBS chairman and CEO has been largely silent during the uproar over “The Reagans,” the four-hour miniseries that was supposed to be the centerpiece of the Eye’s November sweeps. Last week Moonves announced that the project — from exec producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, and director Robert Allan Ackerman — was being pulled from the CBS lineup and sold to Viacom sibling Showtime.
But that move didn’t quell the noise surrounding the project, and in fact ignited another firestorm. In addition to conservative critics condemning CBS for attacking a beloved ex-president and first lady, Moonves found himself facing charges of cowardice from others who believed his decision was all about protecting Viacom’s bottom line and its standing in Washington.
On Friday, Moonves broke his silence and sat down with Daily Variety for a wide-ranging conversation. For more than an hour, the Eye topper spoke about “The Reagans,” passionately explaining why he decided to drop the project — and how things got so out of hand in the first place.
Q: It’s been a weird week for you. You were up there in New York for the 75th anniversary, in front of so many big CBS stars. And two days later, you’re making what’s probably one of the most difficult decisions…
A: …That I ever had to make. It was a very interesting week and I thought about the odd juxtapostion of those two events. Frankly, the decision on “The Reagans” was made a couple of days before the 75th. We didn’t feel it was appropriate, knowing that it would be quite controversial, to announce it ahead of time and get people on the red carpet talking about the Reagans rather than what was a terrific moment in CBS history.
Q: Have you been stunned by the media and public reaction?
A: The only thing that stunned me was some of the personal attacks that have come on. I’m not stunned by the controversy or the passion that people feel about the issue, either informed or uninformed… But it goes with the territory.
Q: Does it hurt?
A: Hurt is the wrong word. It’s not fun when the L.A. Times uses four unnamed sources, which I thought was very interesting for a story in the business section, to criticize me personally. When you’re going to be in my position there are going to be people that take pot shots. I just wish people would have some courage to say it publicly.
Q: Do you remember when you first got a pitch from (executive producers) Craig Zadan and Neil Meron?
A: I did not hear the pitch from Craig and Neil. Bela (Bajaria, head of CBS movies and minis) did.
Q: You read the script.
Q: When you read the script, did any red flags go up in your head?
A: Some did. I was concerned… Once again, a script is a blueprint for a piece. I did not go through it and give notes scene by scene by scene. The only overall note I had then, and now, is about fairness and about evenness in the portrayal of the Reagans. Clearly, we wanted to do a piece about the Reagans, warts and all. One that we knew would be controversial, but one that, possibly, would bring a lot of reflection from both sides of the political spectrum.
Q: But the groundswell of opposition to this project has been from people who saw all or part of the script. If that reaction from conservatives and others has been so negative based on the script, then why didn’t anyone at CBS see the potential for trouble earlier?
A: Scripts are interpreted, that’s what they do. It’s an interpreted piece. Once again, this came with a real distinctive point of view. The director’s agent, just so you know, called me to thank me for selling it to Showtime. The director had a real point of view, very important to him that point of view be seen. And as you know he objected to some of the changes we were making to the rough cut. He’s very happy that at Showtime his point of view can be seen.
I do not look at every single daily we have at CBS. I do not read every script we have at CBS. The full impact of the picture came to me when I viewed a rough cut. And by the way, had I seen dailies — you don’t always get anything from dailies. You see a bit here, a bit there. It is when you see the whole project and you sit down and look at it that you have an impression on the project.
Q: People are saying you caved to corporate pressure, political pressure, that Mel Karmazin and Sumner Redstone told you to make this.
A: Every single one of those things is an absolute lie. It never happened. Number one, Mel Karmazin was totally supportive of my decision, never once tried to influence me ahead of time. Sumner Redstone and I have never had a conversation about the Reagan miniseries, never once. We wanted to have a balanced portrayal of the Reagans. When I looked at the picture and decided that it wasn’t that way, we made the decision, and it was a moral decision, not to air the miniseries. That was the only reason we did not air the miniseries. We did not have advertiser pullout, as reported. We did not do it because of corporate pressure. It did not happen that way.
Q: Did the negative reaction, at least in the back of your mind, play a role?
A: No, it wasn’t about the viewers not liking it… Unfortunately, in this instance, some of the criticisms, although coming from obviously one political perspective, I felt were somewhat well-founded.
Q: There are people on the right who think that CBS was out to get Ronald Reagan. There are people on the left who think CBS cowered to Republican pressure. Are both of them seeing boogeymen where they don’t exist?
A: Of course. The miniseries never started out to ‘get’ Ronald Reagan. Nor did we bow down to political pressure. I would have loved this movie to be controversial from both sides. I would have loved it be provocative and be thought-provoking. At the end of the day, it wasn’t and we made our decision. And it was a moral decision, not an economic or a political one. And I don’t know how more plainly I can state that. Anybody who knows me knows that that’s the truth.
Q: Some have said canceling “The Reagans” was all about money.
A: Every decision is not about profit. We do believe here, and I believe from the bottom of my heart, that there’s a public trust to being a television network. If profit was our only motive, we would have kept the miniseries on the air. That would have been a better thing to do for the bottom line of CBS. It wasn’t because of advertisers, nor was it because of corporate pressure. That did not influence it one iota.
Q: What’s the difference between running this movie on Showtime vs. CBS?
A: The whole idea of cable is you pay your $30, or whatever you pay, to get it. You can clearly take a movie that has a specific point of view and run with it, much more so than a broadcast network. I am very pleased that Showtime wanted to do this. We didn’t just bury it, which we could have.
Q: Why did you even attempt to take this on now? It’s such a politically sensitive time, Ronald Reagan is ill…
A: I thought it was going to be fair. I thought it was going to be more of the thing I’d been told over and over again — “It’s a love story.” Although there would be parts that would bother them, it would be fair.
Q: Should the discrepancy between the script and the movie have been spotted earlier and brought to your attention by Bela or (entertainment prexy) Nancy Tellem?
A: I don’t want to talk about the internal process. We are a team. The buck stops with me.
Q: Do you need to make changes to your executive structure because of this incident?
A: The structure at CBS is as good as the stucture anywhere in the world. We are a close-knit unit. For people to try to take shots at the organization because of this one miniseries is patently absurd.
Q: Given the political views and philosophies of the director, talent and the producers, is it surprising that the project turned out this way?
A: Regarding the talent, let me address that: God forbid we ever cast any project based on a political point of view, one way or the other. God forbid it ever comes to that. Because then you’re going to be in a real witch hunt, which is something that we don’t want to do. Craig and Neil we had worked with before, and they’ve done terrific biographies for us and other networks. They’re terrific executive producers. The project didn’t come out like the way we would have liked to.
Q: Can you identify a mistake you personally made in this whole process?
A: Perhaps this project, because it was so controversial, I should have been more attentive early on. Maybe I should have looked at some of the dailies. But I constantly asked, and I thought we were doing a piece that (did not have) quite as strong a point of view.
Q: Do producers and writers have to worry about a chilling effect from this?
A: I’m sure some will read more into it than is there. It is our intention to continue to do shows that are on the egde, that create controversy. And we will continue to do that.
Q: If the New York Times article had not come out, would you have still decided not to air the miniseries?
A: Yes. I saw the miniseries before the article came out. You had asked that question and I checked the dates on that. I saw the miniseries before that.
Q: Did you say anything to anyone before the article came out?
A: Yes. I did express my objections about the miniseries to staffers within our organization.
Q: Not externally though?
A: Not externally.
Q: So, what was your first reaction?
A: I was very disturbed by it. My first comment was on a conference call with executives and lawyers, that the portrayal had a specific point of view and I gave a series of notes, which was an attempt to make a more centrist picture.
Q: Did you think it could be saved?
A: Possibly. Yes. Yes.
Q: Why not wait? Why not edit? Reshoot? Maybe make a two-hour movie?
A: We probably could have made it into a two-hour movie that would’ve been acceptable to us. It was not the movie the director wanted to do. If you notice even the edits we wanted to do along the way, the director wanted out. He was trying to get his name off the picture at a certain point. There came a point after a series of notes and looking at it over and over again, he couldn’t change the point of view that the movie took.
This is all subjective. Trust me, after the movie goes on Showtime, there will be many people out there that will say ‘What were they talking about? What was the problem?’
Q: You mean, people will say that there’s nothing so bad about this?
A: That is correct. I’m sure there will be people whose point of view will be, “What was he talking about?” Most of them will probably not attach their name to it, either. And other network executives will say, “Oh, I would’ve had no problem putting that on my network.” Once again, you won’t see their name attached to that quote.
Q: You said you were pitched a love story, and that’s what Zadan and Meron sold you. In your mind, that’s not what “The Reagans” ended up being. Do you feel betrayed?
Q: Do you feel misled?
A: Those are questions that I don’t want to answer. I don’t want to get into the mind of what these people intended to do. They presented us with a project that I didn’t want to air.
Q: Would you buy another movie from Zadan and Meron, or a series?
Q: With “Hitler” and “9/11” you opened up the development process to outside people. Having just gone through the “Hitler” experience, would it have been a good idea to bring in or at least contact anyone within the Reagan family, or the outside, to bring in another point of view?
A: No. You know what, the “Hitler” miniseries we brought in people when the product was finished to get their blessing.
Q: But you had someone on site during the filming of “Hitler”…
A: There were rabbis who looked at it. By the way, we had professional people who were part of the Reagan admininstration look at this during the script and during production.
Q: How many advertisers bailed on “The Reagans”?
A: There was one advertiser who pulled out, and like all other potentially controversial things, other advertisers wanted to see it.
Q: Do you think you would have had a problem with advertisers once they did see it?
A: Perhaps. Perhaps some more might have had objections. But that was the least of our concerns. I know people have a hard time believing that it’s not a part of it. Yes, we are one of two profitable networks in existence and we’re very proud of that. But that’s not what motivates us.
Q: Were you amazed that one story could appear in the New York Times, and within a couple hours, it seemed the entire right had mobilized?
A: No, we had gotten a number of emails with the assumption before I had even seen it that it was going to be biased against the Reagans. This campaign from the right started way before the article.
Q: Is it the most reaction from anything you’ve done at CBS?
A: Probably. Except for when we canceled “Dr. Quinn.” I still literally get 100 emails a month.
Q: Even now there are people who don’t want this to be seen. Why do you believe this is so?
A: That’s the way it is with any piece of information that is shown on a television show. We get letters all day long, all week long: “Why did you make a crack about President Bush on ‘Yes Dear’? I’m never watching CBS again.” That’s what America is all about. We don’t shy away from these controversial pieces. We just want them to be fair.
Q: Are you tempted to say next year to get out of the movie-of-the week business?
A: Since we’re the only network with a regular MOW night we might be tempted to move the movie of the week to another night or even eliminate it. But that would have nothing to do with what’s happened with this project. It would have to do with the success and strength of our schedule throughout the week.
Q: Moving on to other subjects. You’ve beat or tied NBC for first among adults 18-49 twice in the last month. If you can become the number one network in 18-49 on Thursday night, that’s a pretty significant thing.
A: It’s very significant. We said the road to our success is be broad and then you can get younger, and it appears to be working. When two weeks ago we beat NBC in adults 18-49, it was the first time in 1987. That’s 16 years ago. We’re not bowing down to the 18-49, but it’s nice to win across the board.
Q: Jeff Zucker said a lot of the new shows “sucked.” Do the new shows suck?
A: Not on CBS. I’m proud of every new show we’ve put on the air. I’ve never been prouder of the CBS schedule than I am now. As of next week, we’re going to be up in households, up in viewers, flat in 25-54. That’s pretty darn good. We’ll be down a little in adults 18-49, but we’re closing the gap. We’re not displeased with where we are.
Q: Anything in particular?
A: A few stupid things come up. I’m sure it happens with everyone. You want to say to the agent, “Have you looked at the ratings for that show?”
Q: If “Raymond,” “Friends,” “Sex and the City,” “Frasier” could all go away. TV comedy could really be in trouble.
A: No question. This is the greatest time in the history of television for the television drama. This is the golden age. This may be a low point for comedy in terms of the number of hit comedies that have come up in the last few years. I think the last big hit was “Malcolm in the Middle.” Comedy does need a shot in the arm, and people are desperately trying to do that and come up with different ideas. We’re looking at a future that four top comedies could be gone either this year or, hopefully with “Raymond,” the year after. And it is a blow. Those were four huge hits. It will be a sad day.