If an advocacy group wants to protest a TV series, fine. But when a TV network preemptively spikes its own show, — as the History channel did with the Kennedy miniseries — a dangerous precedent is set

When people really hate a TV show, they play rough. And if they’re trying to knock it off the air, anything goes. This month, we’ve seen two different attempts to shield viewers from programs that may offend them — the Parents Television Council’s crusade against MTV’s Skins and the behind-the-scenes efforts to keep the History channel’s miniseries The Kennedys from airing. It’s a trend worth rooting against.

I can’t stand the Parents Television Council, which bills itself as a ”non-partisan” group advocating ”responsible entertainment” but in practice comes off as a gang of ”traditional values” hysterics with a bent for headline-making hyperbole. Thus, on Jan. 17, when MTV premiered its Americanized adaptation of the British series Skins, with a cast of actual teenagers depicting sex and substance abuse among high school kids, the PTC could have done many things. For instance, it might have raised questions about the line that separates a realistic depiction of irresponsible behavior from a smugly overmarketed glamorization of it, which, when it comes to this series, would be a conversation worth having. But no: Instead, the group launched an advertiser boycott and asked Congress to investigate whether the show is ”child pornography.” It’s not, of course, but there’s nothing like a reckless lie flung into the whirlwind of a news cycle to short-circuit all nuanced discussion. A small list of sponsors (small so far, that is) bolted — run for your life, Taco Bell Chihuahua! Meanwhile, MTV executives, who are probably succumbing right now to their own binge involving Xanax and Kaopectate, will reportedly consider trimming future episodes.

While the PTC’s child-porn charge is grotesque, this is basically a fair fight. Any advocacy group, conservative or liberal, has the right to try to rally advertisers to its cause, and MTV’s parent company, Viacom, has the financial muscle to stand behind Skins if it chooses. Ultimately, boycotts can’t kill a series that people want to see, so the fate of this one will probably rest with the viewing public — which would have been exactly the case if this controversy had never flared up.

The case of The Kennedys is more troubling. When Joel Surnow, the ultraconservative cocreator of 24, announced in 2009 that he’d be taking on the stories of John and Bobby Kennedy in an eight-hour miniseries for the History channel, some historians were outraged at what was described as an inaccurate and sexually lurid script. Consultants were brought in, changes were made, production on the drama — which stars Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes as Jack and Jackie — was completed. Then this month, the History channel suddenly announced that it wouldn’t air the show. Apparently, $25 million later, the network had only just realized that The Kennedys was not a good ”fit.” Since then, the producers have shopped it to Showtime, Starz, FX, and DirecTV, all of which have also passed.

The Kennedys trailer on YouTube certainly looks appalling, with Joseph Kennedy Sr. darkly intoning to his sons, ”It’s not what you are, it’s what people think you are, and with the right amount of money, you can make them think whatever you want!” as music throbs ominously. Pee-yew. Nonetheless, the History channel has made what I think is a dangerous mistake by surrendering to pressure to suppress it. The network’s ”bad fit” excuse is nonsensical, considering its mandate is broad enough to encompass everything from Pawn Stars to 900 specials about the prophecies of Nostradamus. And the squelching of The Kennedys endows the series with an aura of danger that I doubt it deserves; doesn’t this decision give credence to exactly the kind of garbage-y speculation about the back-channel influence of the Kennedys in which the miniseries itself appears to traffic? The History channel should air the show, then follow each episode with a panel discussion where historians (surely they could find some of those) tell us what the movie got wrong while the filmmakers explain their choices. I don’t imagine that I’ll like The Kennedys. But — just as with Skins — I’d rather decide for myself.

The Kennedys
  • TV Show