NBC began to circle the wagons on its Hillary Clinton miniseries this afternoon, hours after the Republican National Committee blocked the network from GOP primary debates, calling the miniseries a Clinton promo. “The Hillary Clinton movie has not been ordered to production, only a script is being written at this time,” NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt said this afternoon in a statement. “It is ‘in development’, the first stage of any television series or movie, many of which never go to production. Speculation, demands, and declarations pertaining to something that isn’t created or produced yet seem premature,” he added. The statement was issued not long after word got out that Fox TV Studio, which had been in early stages of talks to produce the miniseries, would not move ahead with the project about the former First Lady and Secretary of State.
NBC’s took on this headache when Greenblatt made the Clinton miniseries one of his big announcements at his Summer TCA Press Tour appearance on July 27. Network execs like to come to Press Tour with these kinds of bright shiny lights, to distract the press so they don’t ask too many uncomfortable questions about ratings and some of their new series pickups, etc. Greenblatt announced that the network was preparing the four-hour miniseries as part of an ambitious slate of longform projects with which he hopes to make noise and boost ratings. “We need to be in the event business,” Greenblatt said back then.
In its announcement, NBC said the miniseries would look at “Clinton’s life as a wife, mother, politician and cabinet member from 1998 to the present” and that the script, “will begin with Clinton living in the White House as her husband is serving the second of his two terms as president.” Diane Lane already has been cast for the lead role; the script was being written by Courtney Hunt, writer and director of “Frozen River.”
The RNC was most seriously displeased, almost immediately threatening to pull NBC’s access to GOP primary debates during the next presidential election cycle. (RNC chairman Reince Priebus also made the same threat to CNN, which has a Hillary Clinton docu in the works).
“As an American company, you have every right to air programming of your choice. But as American citizens, certainly you recognize why many are astounded by your actions, which appear to be a major network’s thinly veiled attempt at putting a thumb on the scales of the 2016 election,” Priebus wrote in letters fired off to Greenblatt and CNN President Jeff Zucker.
Criticism of the project has been coming from inside NBC as well. NBC News’ Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell have both expressed dismay over the project. Todd — who, according to IMDb, appeared as himself in two episodes of NBC’s now-canceled sitcom 1600 Penn — said that while there is a firewall between NBC News and NBC Entertainment, “This miniseries is a total nightmare for NBC News.” Not long thereafter, Mitchell called it a “really bad idea”.
This morning, the RNC announced it would not partner with either network for presidential primary debates during the 2016 election cycle. Nor will the RNC sanction any debates those networks might sponsor or broadcast. RNC honchos voted unanimously on a resolution at their annual summer meeting in Boston. In making this morning’s announcement, Priebus dismissed Todd’s firewall argument as pure horseradish, noting that former 30 Rock star (and fave SNL host) Alec Baldwin was in talks to host a show on MSNBC.
When he made the announcement about the Clinton mini, Greenblatt said he planned to get it on the air well before Clinton might formally declare her next bid for the White House — thus avoiding those equal-time headaches.
Last time Greenblatt had a hot-potato political miniseries on his hands, things went differently. He’s the exec who took on The Reagans in 2003 after CBS decided it was too hot to handle. Greenblatt was running programming at premium cable network Showtime back in those days which, like CBS, is under the Viacom umbrella. The RNC wasn’t happy with that one either, though it was about one of the GOP’s most beloved recent presidents. And the RNC joined various groups that objected to The Reagans when it was a CBS project, after a New York Times article quoted lines from the script the reporter considered controversial. (It didn’t help that Reagan was played by James Brolin, aka Mr. Barbra Streisand.)
CBS dropped the movie after the RNC fired off a letter demanding it be vetted by Reagan friends and colleagues, or be accompanied by a crawl declaring it a work of fiction. Greenblatt held a telephone news conference after inheriting the mini, in which he blasted as “ludicrous and specious” some of the complaints against it. He even moved up the airdate, in reaction to the sturm und drang, saying, “I got so sick of people writing about it, making political pronouncements about a movie that no one has seen. … I decided, let’s just get it on the air as soon as we can.”
The Reagans wound up attracting not such a big crowd, though it got loads of Primetime Emmy nominations. About half a million homes tuned in to the premiere to see what the kerfuffle was about — an OK movie number for Showtime in those days.
But the publicity was the stuff of a growing network’s dreams, causing Showtime chairman Matt Blank back then to declare: “I think it was a home run for us. … I told the staff, even before it was on, that we had won, in terms of all the attention we got.”