Starz, FX Pass on 'Kennedys' Miniseries as Search Continues

2 REP The Kennedys

After History yanked the miniseries amid pressure from the Kennedy family, its producers have limited options.

Will The Kennedys find a home? The question is swirling around Hollywood in the wake of A&E Television Networks’ surprise Jan. 8 decision to pull the plug on the lavish eight-part miniseries, which was set to air on History in the spring. 

AETN canceled plans to broadcast the controversial miniseries — executive produced by conservative 24 co-creator Joel Surnow and starring Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes — amid intense behind-the-scenes pressure from the Kennedy family (particularly Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver), whose members had lobbied AETN execs and board members including Disney’s Anne Sweeney and NBC Universal’s Jeff Zucker and Jeff Gaspin to kill the project since it was announced in December 2009. Producers Muse Entertainment and Asylum Entertainment are now free to shop the project to another U.S. network, but the same concerns that kept the project off History might make finding a new buyer more difficult.

“Most of the cable nets are part of huge media companies, so they’re all subject to the same pressures,” says media buyer Brad Adgate, TV analyst for the advertising-buying firm Horizon Media. “This might go straight to video.”

Michael Prupas, president of Montreal-based Muse, told the New York Times on Jan. 10 that “there has been interest expressed by several networks” in the project. But few U.S. networks — cable or broadcast — are in the miniseries game these days. Starz, part of John Malone’s media empire, had recent success with mini The Pillars of the Earth, but The Hollywood Reporter has learned that Starz has passed on the project. FX, part of right-leaning mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., also is not interested. HBO, which often airs pricey miniseries like The Pacific, has its own Kennedys project in development based on the Vincent Bugliosi book Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, with Tom Hanks’ Playtone producing. And networks owned by NBC Universal, Disney and Hearst, whose execs sit on the board of AETN and authorized the decision to yank Kennedys from History, also appear to be unlikely buyers. Caroline Kennedy, for instance, has a book deal with Disney’s Hyperion division and is participating in an upcoming book based on interviews with her mother, Jackie. Shriver, a former NBC Uni employee, is friends with Sweeney. 

Speculation has centered on whether Showtime, a unit of CBS Corp., would pick up the project. The pay cabler has not aired a miniseries since 2004, but that effort, The Reagans, originated at CBS and was shifted to Showtime amid pressure from advertisers and the political right over scenes allegedly depicting Ronald Reagan as being insensitive to AIDS victims. At the time, CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves was criticized by both Democrats and Republicans for airing Reagans; memories of that attack might impact whether Moonves would authorize Showtime president David Nevins to pick up the project. A rep for Showtime says that Nevins — who has a close relationship with Surnow, known for his outspoken conservative political views, from when he ran Imagine Television, which produced 24 — has not watched the miniseries.

Still, analysts say the controversy surrounding Kennedys could make it attractive for buyers.
“If it can get ratings, there’s a market for it,” says media analyst Michael Nathanson at Nomura, adding that the media attention surrounding the cancellation could actually be a selling point. “Maybe a middle-tier cable network will pick it up just for the ratings bounce.”

Costs might be a factor in whether that happens. AETN has not released a budget figure for Kennedys, History’s first foray into scripted miniseries and a project that was championed by AETN president and CEO Abbe Raven and History and Lifetime president and GM Nancy Dubuc. But it is by far the most expensive project in the network’s history, so producers will likely want a big license fee to air it on U.S. television. Helping matters: The production budget is said to have been recouped by foreign sales. Kennedys is still set to air in Canada beginning March 6 and will air in 30 other countries, including in the U.K. on its History Channel, co-owned by AETN and BSkyB.

If no U.S. networks bite, producers could go the VOD route or make a creative deal for multiplatform distribution.

“You could put it on pay-per-view or on satellite or do a streaming deal with Netflix,” Adgate suggests. “More than ever, there are ancillary opportunities. And there are people who really want to see this.”

AETN, Disney and the producers and stars of Kennedys declined comment for this story.