History greenlights 'Kennedys' miniseries

Joel Surnow's miniseries marks net's first scripted effort

History is making a big entrance into scripted programming.

The cable network has greenlighted "The Kennedys," an eight-hour miniseries about the iconic American clan. The project, slated to begin production in the spring for a 2011 premiere, hails from "24" co-creator/executive producer Joel Surnow.

"Kennedys" has a strong "24" pedigree, with former co-executive producer Stephen Kronish writing all eight scripts and former director/executive producer Jon Cassar on board to direct.

Canadian-based Muse Entertainment is producing the mini, whose budget is said to be in the $20 million-$25 million range, in association with Asylum Entertainment.

Pointing to the channel's 25% audience growth during the past three years, History president and GM Nancy Dubuc called the expansion into scripted programming "the logical next step."

Also logical was the selection of the Kennedys as the subject of the channel's first scripted effort.

"The Kennedy family, from every angle, has always fascinated our viewers," Dubuc said, referring to traditionally strong ratings garnered by the channel's documentaries on Kennedy family members.

"Kennedys" opens with the 1960 presidential elections won by John F. Kennedy and ends with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 while also featuring flashbacks to their earlier years.

It revolves around the brothers and their relationship with themselves, their father, Joe, and their wives.

The story line draws parallels to "The Godfather": a manipulative, egocentric father determined to live out his own ambitions through his sons, who in turn spend their lives dancing to his tune while trying to stand on their own.

The big political events of the 1960s -- the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights movement -- will be featured in the mini, but "we will play them as background to the personal stories of the relationships between brother and brother and father and son," Surnow said.

Surnow developed the project with Asylum's Jonathan Koch and Steve Michaels and recruited Kronish, a Kennedy scholar, to write it.

Kronish was 10 when JFK was inaugurated. Kennedy was the first president he knew, and he grew up idolizing the charismatic New Englander.

It wasn't until years later that he got to know Kennedy's personal side, "which was less appealing," he said.
Taking on "Kennedys," "I didn't want this miniseries to be a Valentine -- there have been plenty of them -- neither did I wanted it to be a hatchet job," Kronish said. "I think it is a fairly even-handed look at people who achieved big things at amazingly early ages. We're really trying to see them as people and to strip away some of the patina that has attached itself to them because of their early deaths and to show them, warts and all."

To achieve that balance, it has been "extremely helpful" that Kronish is a self-professed liberal and Surnow a well-known conservative, Kronish said.

Since the mini largely will shy away from the big conference rooms and well-documented speeches in favor of private conversations, research for the project wasn't easy, especially given History's strict requirements for factual accuracy.

Kronish, who said he included private scenes only if they were supported by multiple sources, relied on public records as well as his own extensive library and previous Kennedy documentaries. No members of the Kennedy family or their inner circle have been interviewed.

Surnow, Koch, Michaels, Kronish and Cassar are executive producing the mini with Michael Prupas, Jamie Paul Rock as well as History's Dubuc, David McKillop and Dirk Hoogstra.
The project had been in the works for about a year and was taken by Muse to MIPTV in the spring.

History had ratings success with another epic miniseries about recent U.S. history, HBO's Emmy-winning "Band of Brothers," whose basic rights it acquired in 2003.

Surnow, Kronish, Cassar, Muse and Asylum are repped by Paradigm.