Camelot tales are known for their idyllic second acts and ill-fated finales.
But the reverse held true for the Camelot-set miniseries “The Kennedys,” which endured a harrowing Act II only to triumph in its climax with 10 Emmy nominations, including top miniseries or made-for-TV movie.
“When the Emmy nominations came out, all I could think of was how proud and thrilled I was for everyone who has been involved with this project, because they finally had validation from their peers that the work they did was remarkable,” says Stan Hubbard, chairman and CEO of ReelzChannel, which is basking in its first-ever Emmy noms thanks to the eight-part series that depicts America’s most iconic political family. “These people went to work every day with the weight of history on their shoulders. And they were ridiculed at every juncture.”
The project’s inception appeared promising enough. History was looking to branch into scripted drama, and given the net’s ratings success with Kennedy-related content, a miniseries about the family seemed an ideal fit.
In 2008, History VP Dirk Hoogstra brought the idea to Asylum Entertainment prexy Jonathan Koch, who then pitched it to “24” co-creator Joel Surnow. Surnow brought in “24” scribe Stephen Kronish to write.
In late 2009, History prexy Nancy Dubuc greenlit “The Kennedys,” which a project insider says cost $30 million, and producers quickly assembled a high-wattage lineup that included Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Tom Wilkinson and Katie Holmes.
That’s when the story takes its first dramatic turn. Early drafts of the script were mysteriously leaked, prompting outside criticism that the project was politically skewed to the right (Surnow is one of Hollywood’s higher-profile conservatives).
Though the script passed muster with a number of historians hired by the network throughout preproduction, the 72-day shoot in summer 2010 and postproduction, History yanked the finished project from its slate in January. History parent A&E Television Networks — which is owned by Disney, Hearst and NBC Universal — offered little in the way of explanation, saying simply that the mini “is not a fit for the History brand.”
That move drew immediate counterclaims that the Kennedy family used its muscle to squash the project. After the producers shopped the miniseries around, only one suitor bit, the Albuquerque, N.M.-based net Reelz.
“I read that this miniseries starring Katie Holmes was dropped by History, and then I read that the family put pressure on History and others not to air it. Then I read that Showtime dropped it. So I called my old friend Matt Blank who runs Showtime and asked him how bad it was,” says Hubbard.
“He said, ‘It’s not bad at all — it’s terrific. It will win Emmys’ … but he also said that he didn’t have time on his schedule to air it. He also said it was too hot and politically charged for reasons it shouldn’t be.”
According to an insider, the net bought “The Kennedys” on Feb. 1 for a song: $7 million. Hubbard wouldn’t disclose the purchase price but insists that the net got a fair deal based on the parameters that came with the project.
“It was a radioactive product,” explains Hubbard, who scrambled to air “The Kennedys” within eight weeks of purchase to qualify for the Emmys. “When we bought it, we knew it was controversial. We knew it was set to be tossed into the DVD dustbin. All of the public companies with high-profile board members wouldn’t touch it. But we’re an independently owned network, so we could.”
Though the hullabaloo helped drive awareness, “The Kennedys” faced new hurdles. Hubbard says that promotional tie-ins with corporate-owned websites suddenly evaporated. He also alleges that the filmmakers and Reelz granted access to Parade magazine for an April 3 cover story, which never ran.
“They just went dark,” he notes. “There were no emails, no phone calls, no further communication. I have no idea what happened.”
Despite the obstacles, Hubbard says the “shotgun marriage” between Reelz and “The Kennedys” has turned into a blissful union. The April 4 preem broke ratings records for the fledgling network. And since the miniseries aired, Reelz’s primetime viewership has tripled.
Still, the Emmy nominations offer the greatest vindication.
“We were told that if we ran an Emmy campaign, we would only embarrass ourselves,” he says of the effort led by the Awards Group’s Kim Reed. “But we felt we owed it to everyone involved.”
Paige Albiniak contributed to this report.
Minis surprise with bounce-back year | ‘Kennedys’ path to Emmys a saga of its own | The nominees