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History Channel yanks ‘Kennedys’ miniseries

Cabler's decision to table tentpole surprises TV biz

Joel Surnow and the rest of the creative team involved with History’s eight-part miniseries “The Kennedys” are absorbing the shock of the news that the cabler has tabled plans to run the starry production starting in spring.

Move comes as a big surprise to the TV world as History has been touting the project starring Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes as a tentpole for the fast-growing channel. History reportedly had set aside $20 million in marketing coin to tubthump the mini.

In a sign of how surprised “The Kennedy’s” producers were by the news, Muse Entertainment and Asylum Entertainment retained Crisis PR firm Sitrick and Co. to distribute a statement:

“We are proud of the work all of our talent put into the making of “The Kennedys” and the painstaking efforts that went into creating a drama that is compelling while rich in historic detail. Although we regret this does not fit into the History Channel’s plans, we are confident that television viewers in the United States will join viewers from around the world in having an opportunity to watch this series in the near future.”

“The Kennedys” had already drawn major scrutiny because of Surnow’s unabashedly conservative leanings and criticism from some that the script was skewed to be highly critical of Kennedy’s legacy and his liberal ideology.

There was immediate speculation that pressure from the Kennedy clan on the owners of History parent A&E Television Networks — Disney, Hearst and NBC Universal — may have played a part in the decision.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s inauguration as president, and the start of the fabled “Camelot” era, and thus the family may have been particularly sensitive to the timing of the mini. Disney-ABC Television Group chief Anne Sweeney, who sits on the board of A&E Television Networks, has a connection to the Kennedy family through her role as a board member of Special Olympics, though sources stressed there was no indication that Sweeney or Disney drove the decision to table the project.

Of course, there was also immediate speculation that producers would aim to shop the project to other outlets.

“Upon completion of the production of ‘The Kennedys,’ History has decided not to air the eight-part miniseries on the network,” A&E Television Networks said in a statement. “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. We recognize historical fiction is an important medium for storytelling and commend all the hard work and passion that has gone into the making of the series, but ultimately deem this as the right programming decision for our network.”

History insiders admitted to being distraught by the news that the mini would be tabled, as many execs there felt the final product was very strong and an Emmy contender.

The decision was believed to have come down from the board that oversees A&E Television Network within the past few days. Reps for Surnow, Kinnear, Holmes and others involved with the project were informed on Friday.

Insiders have vehemently denied that the mini came at the story of the Kennedys from a politically charged point of view and that great care was taken to make the story historically accurate. Within History, there has long been suspicion that outside forces were intent on smearing the project, as early drafts of the script leaked and the New York Times ran a front-page story about the campaign by Kennedy associates and filmmaker Robert Greenwald to criticize the historical veracity of the mini.

In addition to Kinnear and Holmes, thesp Barry Pepper had a standout role in the mini as Robert F. Kennedy and Tom Wilkinson played patriarch Joseph Kennedy.

Disney previously weathered criticism that its 2006 miniseries “Path to 9/11” was the byproduct of writers and producers who were determined to lay the blame for the terrorist attacks on the Clinton administration. And in 2003, CBS buckled under the pressure of a storm of protest over the unflattering portrayals of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in “The Reagans” mini, which wound up airing on Showtime.

“The Kennedys” is likely to have plenty of interest from other networks because of the advance PR from the controversy and also its high-wattage cast.

Reps for A&E Television Networks would not comment beyond the statement.

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