Producer Joel Surnow Says 'Kennedys' Was Nearly Killed Because of His Political Views (Exclusive)

 Peter H. Stranks/Reelzchannel/

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?"


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.”             


Abbe Raven
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.

Nancy Dubuc
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.

Stan Hubbard
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.

Anne Sweeney
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.


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