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Last-minute ‘Kennedys’ decision leaves questions

Could problems with History series have been avoided?

Even the left-leaning documaker who led the charge to criticize “The Kennedys” is surprised at the awkward timing of History’s decision to scrap plans to air the miniseries.

“This whole thing has been abysmally handled,” said Robert Greenwald, who launched the website StopKennedySmears this time last year to bring attention to what he and numerous historians viewed as egregious distortions of John F. Kennedy’s political legacy in an early draft of the script.

History had been eyeing a March or April premiere date for the eight-part saga of the Camelot era — a project touted for more than a year by History g.m. Nancy Dubuc as the cabler’s splashy foray into scripted programming. But word surfaced on Friday that the cabler was hastily backing out of its deal on the $30 million mini starring Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes.

“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,” History parent A&E Television Networks said in a statement issued Friday evening.

People close to the situation said the driving force was rising pressure from the Kennedy family and associates on A&E Television Networks’ owners, Disney, Hearst and NBC Universal. The project had been under scrutiny from the start because it was exec produced by Joel Surnow, the co-creator of “24” who is known for his conservative political views. The idea for the mini, however, began with History execs, who then recruited Surnow.

The producers behind “Kennedys,” Asylum Entertainment and Canada’s Muse Entertainment, immediately began shopping the project for a new home. Surnow declined requests for comment.

“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,” Asylum and Muse said in a statement. “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 mini is still set to air in numerous foreign markets, including on the Canadian iteration of History (which is not owned by A&E Television Networks) on March 6. Because of its starry cast and subject matter, “Kennedys” was a strong draw for Muse in overseas markets.

Given the kerfuffle with History, pay TV seemed a likely prospect for “Kennedys.” But HBO and Starz made it clear they were not interested in the property. Producers sent copies of the complete mini over the weekend to Showtime toppers Matt Blank and David Nevins, who were expected to screen it and make a decision in the near future. Nevins has deep ties to Surnow through his years as prexy of “24” producer Imagine Television.

As the airdate for “Kennedys” drew near, Disney found itself in a particularly touchy situation as its Hyperion publishing cut a book deal last year with Caroline Kennedy and the Kennedy Foundation Library. The book, due out in September, will consist of previously undisclosed interviews that Jacqueline Kennedy gave in the spring of 1964 to historian Arthur Schlesinger. Moreover, Disney/ABC Television Group prexy Anne Sweeney has a Kennedy connection through her role as a board member of the Special Olympics, the org founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Sources close to the situation emphasized that Caroline Kennedy and other family members and associates mounted a full-court press with top execs at Hearst and NBC U to raise their concerns about the project. Caroline Kennedy’s cousin Maria Shriver has longstanding ties to NBC U through her past role as an NBC News correspondent.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the start of Kennedy presidency, which also heightened the family’s sensitivity to the timing of the mini.

Insiders said that pressure was mounting as execs began screening the nearly finished product. Friday’s news was a blow to many at History who believed the mini was strong and a good vehicle to launch the cabler into the scripted programming biz. There was also hope it would raise History’s profile by serving as awards bait for its cast, which also includes Barry Pepper as Robert F. Kennedy and Tom Wilkinson as Joseph Kennedy.

History’s about-face spelled victory for activist documentarian Greenwald. Last February, Greenwald marshaled historians and Kennedy associates to sound the alarm after he obtained an early draft of the script. History insiders, meanwhile, saw Greenwald’s campaign as an unfair smear job on the project simply because of Surnow’s involvement — especially since the script by “24” alum Steve Kronish was in its very early draft form.

Greenwald told Variety that he was gratified by History’s decision to back out of “The Kennedys” but he’s puzzled as to why the cabler, and its parent companies, waited until the 11th hour to pull the plug rather than adjusting the script before shooting began.

“The whole thing has been totally mishandled from the start,” Greenwald said. “They’ve paid a lot of money for this thing, and it could have been avoided,” he said.

The major beefs of Greenwald and the experts who lent their voices to his campaign boiled down to the portrayals of JFK and RFK as utterly sex-crazed and of father Joseph Kennedy as purely power mad.

“The sexual content was used to smear the (Kennedy family) accomplishments,” Greenwald said. “Nothing JFK did was any good because for him it was all about sex and power.”

Greenwald said his campaign had no support from the Kennedy family. His efforts resulted in a front-page New York Times story on the controversy. In Greenwald’s view, that should have put History’s corporate masters on notice.

Disney and ABC withstood a similar firestorm with its 2006 mini miniseries “Path to 9/11,” which was blasted as the work of politically motivated writers and producers 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 portrayals of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in “The Reagans” mini, which wound up airing on its sibling cabler Showtime.

In an interview with the New York Times at the time the mini was greenlit, in December 2009, Surnow denied that there was any political agenda driving his interest in the JFK story.

“We’re not making judgments about their political decisions. This is a family story,” Surnow told the Times. The question of his personal political bent “will cease to be an issue — it’s something that I’ll be asked about, and I’ll be answering this question 500 times when it comes out, but when people see it and realize what we’re doing, it will feel like an irrelevant question after a while.”

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