NBC is running the risk of losing out on one of TV’s best reality shows: the Republican presidential primary debates. The GOP’s debates of 2011-12 featured some of television’s most-talked-about moments, from Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 chorus to Rick Perry’s “Oops” moment to Mitt Romney’s $10,000 bet — and in 2015, there’s always the chance that Donald Trump could join the cast.
When NBC Entertainment announced in July that it was planning a 2014 miniseries about presumed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, with Diane Lane playing the former first lady, there was an inevitable reaction from the Right. Republicans accused NBC — which also runs the liberal-leaning MSNBC — of promoting its favored candidate, journalism watch-dog groups agreed that the miniseries was a serious conflict of interest, and even high-ranking NBC News personnel, like Chuck Todd, expressed their unease. (Republicans were equally cross about CNN’s plans for its own Hillary Clinton documentary.)
Republicans, who view Clinton as the most formidable 2016 Democratic candidate — though she hasn’t declared her intentions yet — aren’t willing to stand silently while she enjoys a bounty of free publicity. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, called on CNN and NBC to cancel their Clinton TV projects — “political ad[s] masquerading as an unbiased production” — and threatened to keep the Republican debates away from those networks if they refuse to comply. In the 2012 election debates, CNN and NBC (and its cable subsidiaries) sponsored 11 of the 20 Republican debates.
The politics and motivations seemed simple enough, but NBC, it turns out, is in talks to farm out the production of its Clinton miniseries to another company… Fox Television Studios. That’s the same Fox that also runs Fox News, the conservative cable news channel that is perceived as a friendlier room for Republican candidates. Would the RNC hold Fox News accountable with the same threat it levied at CNN and NBC? Well, no.
Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley yesterday, Priebus explained that his party’s animus extended only towards the networks that air the Clinton programming and that focusing on some “little connection” between NBC and Fox Television on the Clinton project was “ridiculous and stupid.”
“I’m not interested if they’re using the same caterer or whether they drink Diet Coke and I’m not boycotting Diane Lane,” said Priebus. “I am going to boycott the company that puts the mini-series and the documentaries on the air for the American people to view. I’m not interested in whether they use the same sound studio or whether they use the same set. I don’t know the truth of anything you’re talking about, but I do know what’s very clear is that the company that puts these things on the air to promote Hillary Clinton, including CNN, is the company that is not going to be involved in our debates. Period. Very simple.”
Drawing the line at the network that airs the Clinton movies might be appropriate, but it’s also convenient. Fox Television Studios — which didn’t respond to EW’s request for comment — would certainly blanch at Priebus’ assumption that they merely cater the food or provide the stage and sound-studio. They’ve produced series (The Killing) and TV movies like Prosecuting Casey Anthony and Flight 93, and would, in theory, play an essential creative role in the shape of the Clinton movie that eventually airs on NBC. Priebus’ remarks still stand, however. “This is about who is paying for and airing the productions that will help elevate Hillary Clinton ahead of a possible presidential campaign,” says RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski. “We aren’t boycotting Diane Lane or the screenwriters. We are boycotting the people paying for and airing the production to viewers.”
In a statement to EW, NBC drew a clear line between the planned mini-series and its news branch. “NBC Entertainment has many projects in development and this particular mini-series — which has nothing to do with the NBC News division — is in the very early stages. The script has not been written nor has it been ordered to production. It would be premature to draw any conclusions or make any assumptions about it at this time.”
The RNC has set a deadline of Aug. 14, and if NBC and CNN haven’t canceled their Clinton projects by then, Priebus will seek a binding vote from the RNC ruling that it won’t partner with them for any 2016 presidential debates. Both networks could still broadcast the debates, but they certainly want that access and prestige, to have the likes of John King or Brian Williams asking the candidates questions as debate moderators. Plus, some version of The Apprentice: White House edition is probably already on the NBC Fall 2015 slate.