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NBC's Hillary Clinton Nightmare: Who Loses Most (Analysis)

Hilary TV - H 2013
Hillary Clinton

Robert Greenblatt prompts a political firestorm as GOP outcry and questions about what NBCU's Steve Burke knew tarnish a miniseries that insiders predict will disappear.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

As soon as NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt revealed July 27 that the network was planning a four-hour miniseries about Hillary Clinton, a veteran broadcast executive with no ties to the project talked it over with a colleague, who shared his surprise. "We immediately said, 'What a clusterf--- this is going to be,' " he recalls.

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Whether such a miniseries could pull in big ratings is a matter for debate, but industry observers agree that for NBC, the potential upside, even in success, is far outweighed by the gale-force blowback. That already includes the Republican National Committee's Aug. 16 vote to boycott NBC (and CNN, which has commissioned a Clinton documentary from Inside Job Oscar winner Charles Ferguson) during the 2016 presidential primary debates, even though, as Greenblatt has noted, no script has been written and nothing has been put into production. Greenblatt's move also has enraged segments of NBC's news division. Political director Chuck Todd has called the Clinton project a "nightmare," and chief foreign-affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell has said it is "a really bad idea given the timing."

Sources at NBCUniversal maintain that CEO Steve Burke is not pressuring Greenblatt to drop the miniseries. But many at the company now believe the project will never happen. "I don't think anybody anticipated it would become such a headache so quickly," says an NBCU source.

It might be that NBC already has found an exit. THR revealed Aug. 16 that Fox Television Studios has declined to produce the miniseries, ostensibly for financial and not political reasons. Other studios have passed as well, including NBCU's own Universal Television (not for lack of know-how; Bela Bajaria, who runs the TV production arm, was senior vp movies and miniseries at CBS). If the Clinton plan fades because NBCU pursues an unmakeable deal, some might still believe the real issue was politics. But the company could argue that this hardly was the first project to succumb to the difficult economics of the business. Greenblatt seemed to set the stage for that outcome in an Aug. 16 statement noting that the Clinton project "is in development, the first stage of any television series or movie, many of which never go to production." (He declined further comment.)

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Even if the idea vanishes, many wonder how NBC got itself into this mess. Why would Greenblatt approve such a radioactive project just before briefing TV critics at NBC's summer gathering? And what did the politically conservative Burke know, and when did he know it? "Either Burke didn't see the issue, which was bad, or he thought it was still OK to do it, which was bad, or he didn't know about it, which was bad," says the broadcast veteran. "Do you think Les [Moonves at CBS] would have gone down this road?"

An NBCU source says Burke was aware of the project before Greenblatt announced it, but sources with ties to the network believe Greenblatt did not seek Burke's blessing or flag the deal in a meaningful way. (Greenblatt likely knew the project would be controversial given that he was president of entertainment at Showtime in 2003 when CBS dumped its The Reagans miniseries there after conservatives attacked it.)

Some believe Greenblatt had two understandable interests: making a splashy announcement at the press tour, as programming chiefs like to do, and pursuing ratings for his challenged network. Insiders think Greenblatt also genuinely was sold on the idea of Diane Lane playing Clinton and is fascinated by the subject himself. In such a situation, associates say Greenblatt would be likely to dig in his heels, as he has with passion projects like NBC's low-rated Smash. For instance, sources say Greenblatt lately has been reserving his enthusiasm primarily for the upcoming limited series Dracula with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, which premieres Oct. 25, and the live three-hour The Sound of Music event starring Carrie Underwood, set to air Dec. 5.

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Although the Clinton project underscores the conflict between the networks' news and entertainment divisions, the public statements by Todd and Mitchell, who both appear on NBC and MSNBC, expose the divide between NBC News and the liberal-leaning cable network.

"It's a bit rich for Todd and Mitchell to cry foul now about their journalistic purity being contaminated by commercial and ideological considerations," says independent TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall. "As if the MSNBC lineup where Todd and Mitchell ply their trade every day is not shared with activist ideologues such as Al Sharpton and Ed Schultz."

To that end, sources at NBC News say that it was not simply Republican ire that set the news division on edge. Rather, it was the specter of retaliation from the former first lady and secretary of state, who very well could be a leading 2016 presidential candidate. The Clintons' penchant for grudges is legendary. And Hillary in 2008 threatened to boycott an MSNBC-sponsored debate over former anchor David Shuster's comment that Chelsea Clinton had been "pimped out" for her mother's campaign. Any scripted Clinton project almost certainly would include content objectionable to Bill and Hillary. "The Clintons are the ones to worry about," says an NBC source. "Who needs those headaches?"

In the end, probably not Greenblatt. NBCU sources predict the executive will let the furor die down and the project will simply disappear without a big announcement. In hindsight, says a top exec at one television studio, a Clinton miniseries makes sense for Greenblatt -- except for one thing: "He's not running a cable channel anymore."

Marisa Guthrie contributed to this report.