The news that NBC plans to air a four-hour miniseries about Hillary Rodham Clinton — before she makes, as is widely expected, a second bid for the White House in 2016 — has sparked predictable fury.
Including some from the NBC News division. More on that later.
Announcing the program (with actress Diane Lane already signed to portray the former first lady, Secretary of State and Democratic powerhouse), NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt didn't talk about its political implications. He said the network wanted to create a big “event' that would draw eyeballs from its many TV competitors.
It didn't take long for the catcalls to begin. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus promptly denounced the news, saying it would give Clinton an unfair advantage against his party in the 2016 presidential campaign. He also blasted a planned Hillary documentary on CNN, threatening if the two networks didn't cancel the projects the GOP would boycott them in any 2016 presidential debates.
Priebus' stance is somewhat comical, since everyone knows he wants to limit the exposure of his presidential candidates in any way possible. The primary debates in 2012 were generally considered a debacle for the party. Remember Texas Gov. Rick Perry's “whoops' moment that destroyed his campaign? How about the crowd at one event booing an openly gay American soldier? Or Mitt Romney betting Perry $10,000 that he didn't support a key provision of Obamacare? Or members of another crowd yelling “Yeah!' when Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul if an uninsured 30-year-old working man in a coma should die? Or any time Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain opened their mouths? It's no wonder that the party would want to limit future embarrassments in the same vein.
That being said, Priebus has a point. It's a spectacularly bad idea for the entertainment divisions of NBC and CNN to proceed with their Hillary projects. They would give the impression that she is their favored candidate. Even though the entertainment divisions are completely separate from the news operations, the average viewer doesn't know that — or care. Chuck Todd, the network's White House correspondent, called the situation “a total nightmare.'
“This miniseries is a total nightmare for NBC News,' Todd said on MSNBC's “Morning Joe' on Thursday. “We know there's this giant firewall. We know we have nothing to do with it. We know we'd love to be as critical or whatever it's going to be when it comes out. But there's nothing we can do about it. We're going to only own the negative. Whether it's negative because the Clinton people are upset that it's too tough on them or negative because the Republicans think it's this glorification of her.
“No matter what, only we are going to own it. People are going to see the peacock, they see NBC, they see NBC News and think, ' They can't be that separate.''
It's a bad idea for dramatic reasons, too. Who really wants to sit through four hours of Hillary suspecting her husband of having affairs? Of her speculation in cattle futures? Her batting eyelashes at Vince Foster? Her throwing a vase at randy horndog Bill when she finds out about Monica Lewinsky?
Besides, we don't know how the story's going to end. Wouldn't it be more interesting to do a Hillary miniseries after she's elected the first female president of the United States — or slips in her last bid for the gold ring of politics? A miniseries at this point would have to end with a “to be continued' tag.
These kinds of programs almost always draw much more attention than they deserve. “The Reagans,' in 2003, is a good example. Originally set to air on CBS, conservatives raised such a ruckus that it was moved to cable's Showtime. “The Path to 9/11' in 2006 is another. Democrats were outraged by fictitious scenes that seemed to lay the blame for the tragedy at Bill Clinton's feet. Some footage was trimmed before it aired. Neither “event' is much remembered today.
NBC and CNN would do best by scrapping their projects and working on something more conventional. They could follow the lead of The Weinstein Co., producers of the upcoming “Lee Daniel's The Butler.' That film casts, as Nancy Reagan, one "Hanoi Jane" Fonda. That's a nice non-controversial move that we're all looking forward to seeing. Right?