Producer Joel Surnow Says 'Kennedys' Was Nearly Killed Because of His Political Views (Exclusive)
The most radioactive miniseries ever made airs on April 3 on ReelzChannel. Now producer Joel Surnow, a rare Hollywood conservative, asks THR magazine: "If Tom Hanks ... did this show, would there be a problem?"
The following story appears in the upcoming issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine on newsstands Thursday.
Joel Surnow was in the middle of a tennis game when he first realized The Kennedys might be in serious trouble. It was May 2010, and the Emmy-winning 24 producer was taking a break from preparing his ambitious $30 million miniseries about America’s political dynasty, a lavish production that was to signal both a new chapter in Surnow’s career and a bold move into scripted programming for the History channel. Stung by criticism from Kennedy family allies about a leaked early draft of the script, Surnow and his creative team were collaborating with History’s in-house advisers to ensure that the eight-part piece of historical fiction didn’t skew too far from the facts. But on that May afternoon, less than a month before shooting was scheduled to begin, the tenor of the relationship changed.
A routine script meeting between screenwriter Stephen Kronish and History historian Steven Gillon had not gone well, prompting Gillon to fly from New York to Los Angeles to meet with Asylum Entertainment, which was producing the miniseries with Montreal-based Muse Entertainment. At the meeting that morning, Gillon had produced more than 20 pages of color-coded notes outlining specific and wholesale new changes that needed to be made — and fast. A scene depicting the White House communicating directly with soldiers during the Bay of Pigs invasion had to be changed. The house in a scene featuring John F. Kennedy’s reputed mistress Marilyn Monroe was ordered to appear different. And so on. Asylum president and chief creative officer Jonathan Koch called Surnow on the court to relay the clear message: The level of scrutiny of the project had been ratcheted up, and if the changes weren’t made, the project would likely be killed.
"I was sitting there on the court, and I said, ‘This is real, and we might be in serious jeopardy,’ " Surnow recalls.
Many months later in January, even after producers made the requested changes and Gillon gave his blessing to the script, The Kennedys was abruptly yanked from History in advance of its planned airdate, perhaps the most high-profile television project ever shelved by its network after being greenlighted, filmed and nearly finished. The move likely cost History parent A&E Television Networks and its owners, Disney, NBCUniversal and Hearst Corp., millions of dollars in production and marketing costs and led to questions about the level of accuracy required of historical fiction, as well as allegations that network executives were bullied by the Kennedy family into censoring or shelving a project deemed critical of the powerful clan.
Indeed, in the wake of the miniseries’ cancellation, sources close to the decision-making process told The Hollywood Reporter that executives, including Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney, who sits on the AETN board, were personally lobbied by Caroline Kennedy, who has a book deal with Disney’s Hyperion publishing division and is planning to release a collection of interviews with her mother, the late Jacqueline Kennedy, this fall to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first year of JFK’s presidency. One source says Kennedy’s promotion of the book on ABC’s Good Morning America hung in the balance, based on what happened with the miniseries. In addition, Kennedy scion Maria Shriver, who attends church with Sweeney in the Los Angeles area, also has close ties to NBCUniversal, where she worked in its news division. She is said to have voiced her displeasure with the project to then-NBCU execs Jeff Zucker and Jeff Gaspin. (Through reps, AETN, Disney, NBCU and Hearst executives declined comment.)
Surnow, the rare outspoken conservative in liberal-leaning Hollywood, believes the May 2010 meeting provided a peek at the political forces that ultimately led to The Kennedys moving from History to the independent ReelzChannel, where it will have its world premiere on April 3. Surnow says he is still not sure who killed the miniseries at History, but he believes the project was doomed the moment he became involved.
"Because I am a known conservative, it appears that I was deemed unfit to be the person to produce this miniseries," Surnow says, breaking his silence on the controversy during a lengthy interview with The Hollywood Reporter at his Woodland Hills home. "This is despite the fact that I’m American, and John F. Kennedy was my president as much as anybody else’s president. I am a proud American, proud of the Kennedys for their accomplishments and their place in history, but none of that was given voice. I wasn’t Emmy Award-winning Joel Surnow, I was Rush Limbaugh’s and Roger Ailes’ friend Joel Surnow. And that’s all that mattered."
The saga of The Kennedys began not with Surnow but with History senior vp programming Dirk Hoogstra, who, during a 2008 meeting with producer Jonathan Koch, mentioned that the network of Ice Road Truckers was interested in launching scripted historical dramas and that the Kennedy family might provide fertile material. On his way home from the meeting, Koch called Surnow, co-creator of Fox’s innovative counterterrorism serial 24, who had teamed with Koch on a pilot for TNT. As it happened, Surnow, now 56, was hanging out at his house that day with Kronish, a 24 writer and a big Kennedys buff. Surnow told Koch to drive over immediately.
“We sat in those chairs right there,” Surnow recalls, pointing to the porch under a walnut tree behind his ranch-style home in the San Fernando Valley, “and Kronish proceeded to basically tell the story of our miniseries. The story of Joe Kennedy, Joe Jr., the boys and everything that you sort of roughly remember about the Kennedys — but then in details that really made it come to life.”
In summer 2009, armed with a fully shaped outline, the producers and Kronish pitched Lifetime and History president Nancy Dubuc and development execs David McKillop and Hoogstra in New York. The story would chronicle a time frame going from JFK’s 1960 presidential election to Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, with flashbacks filling in the family’s story. Surnow, Koch and partner Steven Michaels, as well as Michael Prupas of Muse and producer Jamie Paul Rock, would form the key creative team, along with director Jon Cassar, editor David Thompson and composer Sean Callery, all 24 vets. Muse would raise almost half of the budget via international presales in a model similar to how independent films are financed, with AETN kicking in half the budget for U.S. rights (AETN later bought U.K., Latin America and U.S. home video rights).
In those initial meetings with History, were there any discussions of Surnow’s political leanings?
“No, zero,” Surnow says adamantly. “Zero, zero, zero.” But by then his conservative ideology was well known in Hollywood. An unabashed Republican (he sometimes smokes cigars with Limbaugh), Surnow and 24 had become embroiled in the national debate over the Bush administration’s position on torture. His post-24 projects included Fox News’ short-lived ½ Hour News Hour, a Daily Show of sorts aimed at conservatives.
"I said to Jonathan — during the process — that eventually the awareness of my political leanings and the friends I have could come back to bite us in the ass," Surnow recalls.
Those nibbles came quickly. Immediately after the project was announced in December 2009, critics pounced. In February 2010, The New York Times ran a front-page story in which former JFK adviser Theodore Sorensen called the project “vindictive” and “malicious.”
"At that point, things changed dramatically," recalls Muse's Prupas. "Suddenly there was greater focus on what was going into the material. But it seemed to me that we had a very supportive, enthusiastic network behind us.”
After enlisting Gillon and historian Robert Dallek, both of whom had written well-regarded books on John F. Kennedy, History encouraged the producers to deliver additional scripts and assembled a cast of film actors, including Greg Kinnear (John F. Kennedy), Tom Wilkinson (Joe Kennedy Sr.) and Barry Pepper (Robert F. Kennedy), along with Katie Holmes (Jacqueline Kennedy). With the HBO-caliber cast set, only final script approval remained. Surnow says the May 2010 meeting with Gillon and his color-coded memo led to a period of feverish, up-all-night writing and revising.
“They were down to specific words,” Surnow says. Producers, for instance, had wanted Jack Kennedy to go to Hyannis Port, Mass., before his father had a stroke, but the historians nixed that. “We had a magnifying glass over every line.”
Surnow reaches across the table, opens a computer and reveals an e-mail dated May 25 from Gillon to him, Koch and McKillop: “I have approved the latest version of episode one for historical accuracy. Congratulations.” Surnow has similar e-mails for all the other episodes.
But the fight wasn’t over. Even after shooting the miniseries in Toronto from June through September 2010, producers felt additional pressure over historical accuracy. After the project was canceled, The New York Times, citing anonymous sources, wrote that when History historians viewed the edited version of the miniseries, they complained that it still contained several scenes of questionable factuality, including depictions of the family’s sex lives.
"That’s not true," Surnow responds. “The historians went through and asked us a couple questions, just crossing-every-t, dotting-every-i stuff, but they were just notes. Nothing of any historical substance."
For instance, Surnow says the advisers asked producers to prove that a rifle hung on the wall of the White House. “It was literally that specific," he says. "The level of scrutiny was intense."
Still, sources cited by the Times claimed the historians, who declined through a History rep to comment for this article, wrote key memos to the AETN board outlining lingering factual concerns about the miniseries. The advisers, for instance, were said to have criticized a sequence in Episode 6 during the Cuban Missile Crisis where Jackie is depicted threatening to leave JFK with the kids due to his dalliances with other women.
“She did leave the house then," Surnow says. "She might not have left for the reasons we put in the show, but we had it on historical record the days she was in the White House and the days she wasn’t in the White House, so that was accurate. When you are compressing eight years into eight hours, very often if you want to make a point about their marriage, sometimes you are going to juxtapose things."
Under the microscope, Surnow was getting nervous, especially after History postponed a plan to air a two-minute trailer for the miniseries in movie theaters during the holiday season. A decision to forgo a presentation at January’s Television Critics Association gathering in L.A. added to his suspicions. But if there was a debate at AETN about whether to kill the project, the producers were not included in the discussion.
Then in early January, the bomb dropped. Surnow received a call while in his living room, informing him that a press release was being prepared. "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," the release announced. Surnow called Kinnear’s CAA agent Rick Kurtzman and Holmes’ manager John Carrabino — neither of whom knew anything about the behind-the-scenes drama. Sources say the reps were livid, especially Carrabino, who had fought for Holmes to be cast as the iconic first lady. (CAA declined to comment; Carrabino didn’t return a call.) Wilkinson, Pepper and the rest of the cast and crew learned the news when THR broke the story Jan. 7 on its website.
Surnow hesitates to blame anyone in particular for the decision, especially AETN president and CEO Abbe Raven or History’s Dubuc, both of whom championed the project and maintain a good relationship with the producer.
"I will say it happened at the corporate level, at the board level," says Surnow. “I don’t want to mention anyone by name. I read the same articles you read. To this day, I’m not sure if it’s the whole story. I think it’s very simple to say that certain board members are friends with the Kennedys."
Surnow believes the proof that the decision was made for personal rather than business reasons can be found in the U.K., where the History Channel, co-owned there by AETN and BSkyB, will air The Kennedys in its entirety, beginning April 7, even though the BBC offered a multimillion dollar deal to take it off their hands. In Surnow’s eyes, political pressure made the miniseries good enough for AETN to fight for it in the U.K., but "not a fit" for the History brand in the U.S.
Immediately after yanking the miniseries, AETN began shopping U.S. rights. Execs at Showtime, which took on the controversial Reagans miniseries in 2003 when CBS advertisers balked, were not interested. HBO, AMC, FX, TNT, Starz and DirecTV passed.
But when Stan Hubbard, CEO of the family-owned ReelzChannel, read about Showtime balking, he called up his friend, the network’s chairman and CEO Matt Blank. "I asked Matt, ‘Is it Kennedy bashing? What’s wrong with it?' "Hubbard recalls. "He went on to tell me how good it was. After seeing The Kennedys, his regard for the Kennedys as leaders and contributors went up. Based on that, I said, ‘Who do I call?' "
Less than 10 days later — after Hubbard and his wife watched all eight episodes during a single Friday night and Saturday morning marathon — Reelz had closed a deal to world-premiere the miniseries beginning April 3. Hubbard won’t reveal the price tag, but sources say Reelz is paying around $7 million. He says he has committed to a marketing budget of around $10 million and has hired awards consultants to push the miniseries for Emmys.
Hubbard, who says he has not heard from the Kennedy family, sees the miniseries not just as a onetime bid for publicity and viewers but as a lure to increase carriage. The network, launched five years ago, is seen in about 60 million homes but is not carried by biggies Cablevision or Cox. Hubbard has reported early success, doubling weekly viewership for programs since the Kennedys deal was announced, but analysts are still skeptical.
"That’s a heck of a lot of money to be paying," notes Alan Gould, managing director and media analyst for Evercore Partners. "I don’t see people running to say, ‘Gee, I need the Reelz Channel to watch The Kennedys.' "
And luring advertisers has been difficult. Presenting sponsor Cadillac, which had produced an elaborate two-minute commercial, scrapped the campaign, as did others. But Hubbard says commercial time is now 60 percent sold, with at least 15 sponsors on board.
"Our advertising won’t be anywhere near what we hoped," he says. "But we knew that risk when we stepped up. That’s part of being an independent. We can accept that risk."
As for Surnow, he is already considering another miniseries project. He says his objections to how the Kennedys miniseries was handled have nothing to do with the Kennedy family. "If somebody was doing a miniseries about my family, I’d do the same thing as the Kennedys," he says. "I admire the Kennedy family for trying to preserve the legacy of their family in the most positive light. You would do that, I would do that. The problem is when people inside the media are influenced by that, they cease to become objective, and then they become partisan. The fact of the matter is that JFK was my president as well as their president. Let me ask you a question: If Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg did this show, do you think there would be a problem?"
ReelzChannel & The Kennedys
For most cable networks, deciding whether to take on a controversial miniseries like The Kennedys would involve long meetings, executive strategy sessions and approval from a board of directors. “For me it was a call to six family members," says Stan Hubbard, CEO of ReelzChannel. “We’re all partners in the business that we own together — my dad, three sisters and a brother.” Launched in 2006, the Albuquerque, N.M.-based channel was previously known more for nightly movies and chat shows featuring film commentators Leonard Maltin, Sam Rubin and Richard Roeper. The channel, a subsidiary of the family’s Hubbard Broadcasting, which owns TV and radio stations in New York, New Mexico and other markets, is now in about 60 million homes and attracts about 5.5 million viewers a week. That number is sure to rise with the weeklong broadcast of The Kennedys, after which the network will try to keep the momentum going by launching a reality/chat show with former NBA star John Salley. “This is a big deal for us,” Hubbard says. “We hope this will help people discover ReelzChannel.”
A&E Networks president and CEO championed The Kennedys as History’s first scripted miniseries. Producer Joel Surnow says he maintains a good relationship with her.
The well-regarded president and CEO of Lifetime and History was an early proponent of the series after hearing Surnow’s pitch in summer 2009.
After watching the entire miniseries in a marathon weekend screening, the president and CEO of ReelzChannel was convinced he wanted to air it on his 5-year-old network.
The Disney/ABC TV group president sits on the board of AETN, which Surnow believes shelved the miniseries in part because of his political leanings.