For more than a year the History Channel created “The Kennedys,” its first major foray into scripted programming with a project that delved into the lives of one of America’s most famous political families. Then, abruptly, it dropped it, saying that the final product didn’t meet its standards and amounted to “historical fiction.” Reelz Channel has since picked up the project, with a big promotional push launched in advance of an April 3 debut. Much of the controversy centers on a leaked first draft of the script that stirred prominent historians and the ire of Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen before his death in October. But the final project is much changed from that first peek, and the producer behind it, Joel Surnow, best known for “24” suspects that much of the controversy has to do with his being one of the few outspoken conservatives with a prominent role in the industry. I spoke to him earlier this week.
Do you know how the first draft of the script leaked?
I have no idea. It had to have been someone along the pipeline, an assistant in an office somewhere who was doing it. There were very few people who had access to the script at that time so it is a little of a puzzle.
This is certainly not the first “Kennedy” movie or miniseries, some of which aired on the broadcast networks when the principals were alive. Why do you think this created such controversy?
I think that is a good question. I frankly think that the controversy really had to do with the fact that the auspices weren’t familiar to the Kennedy family and they didn’t like the fact that somebody like myself, who is known as a non liberal, was doing their family story. I think that is probably what raised their hackles and [they] thought, ‘Oh my god, maybe somebody is trashing the family.’ You’ve seen the miniseries. That is the furthest thing from the case.
It is very reverential. It doesn’t detract from Camelot. These were very glamorous people but they had flaws. But the flaws aren’t anything that are devastating and certainly not groundbreaking. There is not a high school library book in America that you can’t find story lines about JFK and his drug use and womanizing. It is a fairly well documented fact.
How hard was it to sell this once History dropped it?
I think it was. First of all you have got a certain demographic. The cable networks now are demographic specific. And you also have networks that are branded. Showtime is a very specific brand and they are going out of their way to kind of identify themselves. HBO has a Kennedy miniseries with Tom Hanks and I believe Steven Spielberg. So that put us out of the loop there. You go down the line and it really didn’t fit with certain networks, I don’t know if any of the networks were shy about the controversial angle of it but … it is always easier to say no than it is to say yes. So I just think that we feel very lucky that the show is going to air.
[Reelz executives] are a spectacular partner, in every way. They have embraced the show. They love the show for what it is. And they feel it is an important American drama. They took it on as a bit of crusade. …They have not stopped for one second when they picked up the show in trying to promote it and trying to sell it to their advertisers and just trying to get this word out. They are also independently owned, which means that there could be no corporate pressure and no boards or anybody who has to sign off on anything. [Reelz’s] Stan Hubbard makes his decisions unilaterally and lives by them, and is unimpeded and unfazed by any outside influences.
When History dropped this they called it ‘historical fiction.’ Is that the way to characterize it?
I would not look at their press release. Their press release was fiction. That was not the reason this show (was dropped). That was the reason they gave publicly. This show is 100% historically accurate. We have eight approvals. Eight scripts. This thing was vetted extremely, extremely microscopically, by the historians at History channel and lawyers. The only fiction was their press release.
You told Entertainment Weekly that you felt this was discrimination.
I think that there was an assumption because there was a known conservative producing the show and that it is was going to be a hatchet job. I think that is what the Kennedy family assumed. Again, I have no beef with the Kennedy family. It is very much within their right to want to protect what they perceive as a kind of a tainting of their family image, or whatever they feel about their family. It is incumbent, however, upon the people that make films and make television shows to protect their artists, especially with something like this that has been done with as much integrity as has been done, and that didn’t happen.
Did you yourself hear from any members of the Kennedy family?