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Politics are Tearing Apart America, But Hollywood Execs Still Don’t Seem to Realize It (Column)

Back in July 2013, then-NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt announced a miniseries about Hillary Clinton, set to star Diane Lane and focus on her life in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Call it cynical, but many of us gathered at the Television Critics Association press tour that day were skeptical that the project would ever actually happen. As I said then on a radio interview about NBC’s plan: “Have you not been on the Internet lately? There may be some people who might object to this.”

That was an understatement. The response to the announcement, on both sides of the political aisle, caught NBC off guard. Republicans felt a Clinton series might help her potential 2016 presidential campaign in a positive light, and threatened to keep the network out of the party’s debates cycle. Orgs like progressive-leaning watchdog Media Matters thought a series digging up old Clinton scandals would provide ammunition to the anti-Clinton camp. And indeed, two months later, NBC scrapped the idea.

Hollywood is known for embracing politics, but it’s surprising how little its leaders anticipate the emotional, visceral reaction that comes with venturing into that minefield. Even now, when politics seem to dominate every aspect of American life, execs still frequently dip into this territory without any sense of the reaction they might get.

But ABC shouldn’t have been surprised on Wednesday when the casting of former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer on “Dancing With the Stars,” quite frankly, pissed a lot of people off. Spicer may be out of the White House, but his ex-boss isn’t — and as the president continues to do more day-by-day damage, the idea of giving a fun, carefree platform to a complicit former member of that administration doesn’t sit well with a lot of people.

On the same day that ABC announced Spicer, Donald Trump was calling himself “The Chosen One” and claiming Jewish voters who supported Democrats were “disloyal,” while the White House was announcing plans to end limits on incarcerating migrant children.

So you can see why some fans of “DWTS” might find the mainstreaming of Spicer to be a polarizing move, one that even host Tom Bergeron is taking pains to distance himself from without actually distancing himself.

From a marketing standpoint, mission accomplished: Spicer’s casting got tongues wagging and people talking about the show. But when you poke a hornet’s nest, at least have some awareness that you’re going to get stung.

Just ask NBC News. Megyn Kelly was famously paid $69 million by the Peacock to host a daytime talk show — despite the fact that her past race-baiting comments on Fox News and her clashes with Donald Trump had made her a polarizing figure across the political spectrum. Having alienated virtually everyone, her show flamed out as quickly as most had predicted. Had NBC News read the room, they could have saved a chunk of change.

More recently, Universal’s thriller “The Hunt” was scrapped after its depiction of violence felt inappropriate following several real-life mass shootings. But the film was walking a tightrope even before that with its depiction of “liberal elites” hunting right-wing “deplorables” for sport. Ironically, it was Republicans who cried foul, even though the movie’s conservative characters are the ones being victimized on screen. Those who have seen the movie say the satire is more nuanced than that, and perhaps that’s why Universal didn’t expect a firestorm.

But have they not been paying attention to the way the world now works? Emotions are running high, and all it takes is a headline to send people to their respective camps. Many entertainment industry execs are on social media, yet they seem to suddenly forget that we now live in a clickbait era, and no one has time for context anymore.

I’m not saying creatives should shy away from tackling politics, and certain programs do it quite well — satirical comedies, documentaries, talk shows, and of course, news programs. But when injecting politics into entertainment, realize that you’re walking a fine line — and need to be prepared for the backlash.

Not all politics are toxic, but there are certain third rails that Hollywood should know by now, in these sharply divided times, to touch at its own peril. And at the top of the list are two names: “Clinton” and “Trump.”

Dancing With the Stars” is currently experiencing the backlash that comes with aligning with a Trump associate. FX, meanwhile, is planning a Clinton-themed series timed to the 2020 election, the timing of which is also expected to infuriate both sides of the political spectrum.

Years of screeching talk radio hosts and right-wing spin on networks like Fox News have long turned anything “Clinton” into a boogeyman, and anyone daring to produce a project about President Bill Clinton or former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton should be prepared for that. (Again, just ask NBC.) And that’s why I’m still not so sure FX knows what it’s in for with “Impeachment: American Crime Story.”

I have every confidence that writer Sarah Burgess will come up with a compelling new chapter of the “American Crime Story” franchise, and it’s based on existing IP: Jeffrey Toobin’s bestselling book “A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President.” In discussing the project with FX executives, I can see how this limited series will explore themes far beyond Clinton, much as “The People v. OJ Simpson” was a lot more than just about the football star-turned-alleged-killer.

But the actual content of “Impeachment” will have little to do with how people on TV and Twitter frame the conversation about it, especially if it debuts as planned on Sept. 27, 2020 — a month before the election, when the nation’s nerves will be particularly on edge. Will the merits of that show be drowned out by a larger rehash of Clinton (and the 2016 Clinton/Trump campaign, which Trump will likely be hammering non-stop at that point), and will FX be ready to navigate any sort of backlash? A year from now, this country might be ready to explode. A limited series about how a Democratic president was impeached over one lie, given the charges against this current administration, will almost surely stir the pot.

I’m looking forward to “Impeachment,” just as now I’m very curious as to how Sean Spicer is received — by his co-stars and also by viewers — on “Dancing With the Stars.” But I’m not naive enough to think such moves won’t cause a shitstorm. Own it — and brace for impact — but don’t be surprised when your embrace of the political gets political.

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