'The Kennedys' producer on losing History Channel: 'It felt like discrimination' -- EXCLUSIVE

Kennedys-Kinnear-Holmes

Image Credit: Zak Cassar/Reelz Channel; Inset: WireImage.com

In preparation for the world debut of The Kennedys on ReelzChannel April 3, EW talked exclusively to Joel Surnow (24), the executive producer of the miniseries that was dropped by The History Channel in January. Before production on the 8-parter even began, a movement spearheaded by a Hollywood documentarian began to stop the miniseries.

When you first began developing the miniseries, did you worry your political bent could affect the project? “I knew that the fact this was going to be about the Kennedys and that there was going to be a known conservative involved in it might be a problem down the line for someone. It didn’t escape me that could be an issue. But  it was never a political show. This was never about anything other than telling a family story.”

Didn’t historians vet the miniseries? “History has in-house historian Steve Gillan, who was there from the beginning and he vetted the script at every step at the way. After he was done, they brought in another historian named Robert Dallek who was highly respected and who has written books on the Kennedys. Historical accuracy is not the issue here. It has nothing to do with why this miniseries got canceled. Every script was approved. Every cut was approved. There was never any conversation like `we have a problem with this or that, let’s change it.’ This simply had to do with things other than what was said in the press release. In terms of trying to follow the story of historical accuracy, that’s not where this story lives. This story is about why a miniseries got canceled because of the political bent of some of the people involved. Or in this case one person’s involvement.

“If anyone has known my work for the last 25, 30 years, I’m not agenda-ized, I’m not even a political writer. I’m an agnostic filmmaker, I’m an agnostic writer. I go where the story is. It really felt like discrimination to me at the end of the day. I have no problem with the Kennedys. The Kennedys are absolutely in their right to want to protect their family as they see fit. It’s when the people who are inside our business, the ones making decisions who bend to that and cave to that, even when there is nothing valid about the objections being leveled against us, you have to start thinking about discrimination and censorship.

“The people who canceled this had the opportunity to see all 8 episodes. This wasn’t about the [Kennedy family], these are the people on the corporate board above the History Channel. Again, don’t look at the Kennedys. The Kennedys have very little to do with this. They can’t cancel a miniseries. The only people who can cancel it are the people at the highest corporate levels.”

A spokesman for A&E TV Networks, which owns History, would not comment other than to refer to the company’s original position on the miniseries: “While the film is produced and acted with the highest quality, after viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand. We recognize historical fiction is an important medium for storytelling and commend all the hard work and passion that has gone into the making of the series, but ultimately deem this as the right programming decision for our network.”

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The Kennedys finally finds a home

Comments (109 total) Add your comment
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  • Jimmy

    Joel Surnow comes off as such a whiner everytime I read an interview with him. Moreover, if he thinks this is discrimination then he must not know what that really means.

    • What the ????

      Word, Jimmy. I have heard him say things that are discriminatory.

      • Buzz

        My partial-read on this project being shelved is this:
        they shot it Ontario (Toronto environs, I think ), Canada. Had they shot it in the US the naysayers ( or whoever) would have had less leverage and more incentive to broadcast it . why this is I am not completely sure …but Canadian location shoots are looked down upon by some/many…

      • Kris

        @Buzz
        Are you being serious rght now? Like 60% of the films and television shows out there are shot in Canada. They do it because it’s cheaper than shooting it in America. People don’t look down on them for it, it’s normal. People don’t say “Well Mean Girls was a great movie…but it was shot in Canada” or “If Fringe was shot in the States I’d watch it, but…” You need to check your facts.

    • Sally

      Why didn’t they do some research and provide the readership with who is on the “corporate board”..???? That would be news.

      • Tom

        I would like to know too. Fork it over!

      • maggie

        Who cares who’s on the board? The only thing that matters is if the miniseries is true or if it’s full of lies. The 2 historians Surnow mentions as working on the miniseries have said their imput was ignored by Surnow and that the finished miniseries is full of lies and distortions.

    • PhilipJames

      hey, when a few liberal skanks raise hell and the network kisses their feet and yanks a program they funded and approved, not discrimination due to liberal bias? you are blind, right? and a little touched, right?

      • Katie

        So were you in support of the Reagan TV movie getting yanked and dumped on Showtime? Was that not a case of “a few conservative skanks raise hell and the network kisses their feet and yanks a program they funded and approved”?

      • Rob

        Compassionate conservatism at its best. Using ‘Skanks’ just defines you more than us.

  • Regan

    Oh JFK and the Kennedy’s are such Saints, leave them alone. Just wait until after the Holy Barrack’s Prez ends. He will forever be treated with kid gloves- as with JFK and his band of goofballs!

    • AK

      Yes, just like almost every ex-president. Remember, the same thing happened with “The Regeans” miniseries a few years back. In these times, it seems any sort of politicized entertainment is simply too controversial.

      • Dave D

        Except “The Reagans” WAS aired.
        …even in spite of the fact that half of it was editorialized garbage and fictional filler.
        So… ummm… no comparison.

      • Buzz

        The Reagans was filmed in Toronto( ?) too , so maybe my comment was off- base…. and Judy Davis won an Emmy for her work as Nancy , on top of that ….
        that was by no means a tough look /hard hitting production …not like any of those that have been about or thinly-veiled tales about the Clintons, on TV or in the movie theatres !

      • Rose

        “The Reagans” was not aired by CBS, the network that had ordered the miniseries. They eventually found a cable network to air it.

      • maggie

        Actually, The Reagans was pulled from CBS, who then tried to sell it. But they couldn’t find a buyer. No network would buy it because no company would buy commercial time on a broadcast due to the controversy. So Viacom, the owner of CBS and Showtime, decided to put it on Showtime hoping the controversy would get more subscribers.
        The difference with The Kennedys is that The Kennedys actually found someone to buy it (Reelz).

    • jodipo

      You misspelled Barack. Normally I do not pick on people and their spelling, but you are calling the Kennedy’s goofballs and criticizing the President of the United States and you cannot even spell his first name correctly. I am going to go out on a limb here and say your a white southerner with very little education that listens to both Rush Limbaugh (see how I can spell his name right, and he isn’t even the President) and Glenn Beck, and watches Fox News exclusively. In other words, you’re an idiot.

      • caramia

        Jodipo, as a white southerner, I find your comments WAAAAAY worse than anything AK said. Way to lump a whole group of people together. Isn’t that closed-minded discrimination? I guess not, when you are a liberal, non-white, northern who obviously has an Ivy League education. I forgot, you are better than almost everyone, except maybe a Kennedy.
        And my feelngs have nothing to do with my politics, which are decidedly middle-of-the-road.

      • RT

        This whit and native southerner is proud our President Obama.

      • Zach

        I loved your comment, but you had a “your” instead of a “you’re.” Just saying, if you’re going to criticize someone else’s grammar.

      • john

        There was one ‘r’ too many, so I’d be saying you went on quite a limb for your censure there.

      • dani

        Jodipo – funny you write about misspelling and you can’t do so yourself and don’t know how to write the English language. To quote you:”I am going to go out on a limb here and say your a white southerner” — it’s not “your” it’s YOU’RE. As in you are. So before you comment – check YOURself – doofis.

      • From Chicago

        One more thing, Jodipo. What you said was sanctimonious (notice I can spell that, and rude. I don’t know where you hale from, but you are a pompous A**.

      • bornagainpagan

        Jodipo,Spell-Master….You’re ‘a white southerner,’ NOT your

      • Shelly

        And you can’t even spell “you’re” correctly. Pot..kettle

      • MarineDad

        Wow…. let’s really find out how you feel about people that think different than you. It really does amaze me that Libs think themselves the righteous saviors of the misspellor, the downtrodden, the politically misaligned. Or, that is unless they are in their party.

      • L.N. Smithee

        “Kennedys,” not “Kennedy’s.”

      • moron

        jodipo, missed you’re and plural Kennedys.Nothing possessive there. So you’re up there with Bill Maher in the IQ category, all in your liberal mind. Note how to use yor’re vs. your in my last sentence.

      • Nonknower

        The superiority of the elite class rears its ugly head once again. If someone disagrees or watches Fox News they called an idiot. The intolerance of the left is draining, however watching the hypocrisy can be entertaining.

      • Josh

        Intolerance and hypocrisy aren’t specific to one party. But nothing gets more hypocritical than fighting against gay rights only to be found with a young boy down the road. And that wasn’t a Democrat.

      • Alas

        Josh,I think you missed the overall point Nonknower was attempting to make. Of course on both sides of the aisle there will be individuals that are hypocritical. And in the instance you refer to, the Repubs were quick to denounce him. It is about the basic tenets and principles they espouse that libs en masse are guilty of being two faced. The Dems try to portray themselves as the party of intolerance, when in fact, it is just the opposite. En masse of course.

    • Tarc

      Just like Reagan and the Bushes – the true roots of the Great Recession.

      • Mary

        Isn’t that the truth, Tarc! Sigh…….

      • Dave D

        WHAT is just like Reagan and the Bushes?
        The Reagan series, in spite of several inaccuracies and a blatantly hostile bent, made it to TV.
        Because, you know… it’s okay to bash a president, so long as he’s not a democrat.

      • Rose

        “The Kennedys” miniseries will also be on TV. A cable channel picked it up. When “The Reagans” was dumped by CBS it was also picked up by a cable network.

  • Greg Angelo

    So “The 1/2 Hour News Hour,” his 2007 “Daily Show” knockoff on Fox News wasn’t political? Okay.

    • Rose

      Of course not! Don’t you know Fox News isn’t political? And John Boehner is naturally orange.

    • maggie

      Surnow is absolutely political. He’s also full of crap. Those historians he mentioned do not approve of the final cut of the miniseries and have complained to The History Channel about all of the lies & distortions in the miniseries. How funny of Surnow to use the names of 2 of his critics and claim they support his view of the Kennedys.

  • jaymi

    So my question is the obvious one and one I wish they would have addressed. “Who exactly are the people on the corporate board?” Is it a huge secret? If not, why not include this info in the article–it is begging for it.It’s incomplete.

  • Joanne Kinn

    If it is historical fiction the use a fictional name. It was intended to be a smear piece. Put it on Fox News – that’s how they operate. No facts, just an outrageous lie.

    • James

      You’re an idiot. Keep filling your brain with other people’s ideas and you always will be.

      • anti-Faux News

        Joanne is correct. You’re the one that is tragically mistaken, but then us intellects have come to expect that from Fox News watchers.

      • Tarc

        There is a reason it’s called FauxNews and has ratings that do not lok like the actual news – fictional propaganda sells. This rejected show seems like it might be a reasonable venue (and the fellow is lying when he says that no one was objecting to the script much earlier in the process. In fact, he was warned that if he filmed that, they might not accept it).

      • JJtheTraveler

        What arogrant baloney. What a bunch of pompous libs.

  • ronnie

    I won’t pass any judgements on its quality or merits until I see it. And neither should anyone else.

    • lori

      Finally, someone who sounds intelligent and not filled with hatred … I completely agree Ronnie.

    • Huh

      I saw the latest, extended trailer for this and it is ridiculous. How on earth can you claim to know of private conversations between two people when you were not one of the people involved? By using your psychic powers? The word for this is “crackpot”! This is as bad as “non-fiction” writer Joe McGinniss writing that laughable book detailing the thoughts in Ted Kennedy’s mind. If you have such special powers of discernment; then why waste them on writing or producing nonsensical drama–you should be running the world or curing cancer of something?

      • Joanne

        My uncle was white house secret service during the Kennedy Johnson administrations. He took an oath of silence, but once JFK was gone and he was off the be a Federal Marshal we got the skinny and there is plenty of it!!!He passed a couple of years ago, so guess it’s okay to mention it now. JFK made Billy Clinton look like a choir boy.

    • Michael

      Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing it. I can’t believe how much Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes look like JFK and Jacqueline!

  • M

    Well, The Reagans was canceled for political reasons a few years ago and I didn’t hear anyone claiming discrimination then. The only difference was that movie landed at Showtime very quickly whereas The Kennedys couldn’t find a distributor and ended up on a network no one has ever heard of. My guess is the reason it was dropped and why it couldn’t find a distributor is because it probably sucks!

    • Jos

      Then you weren’t listening

    • Dave D

      Except it wasn’t canceled. That’s just a lie. It aired in it’s entirety.
      The DVD resale rights were abandoned because the distribution company didn’t see enough profit in it. In no way is there a valid comparison, here.

      • maggie

        The Kennedys is going to be aired as well. Neither The Kennedys nor The Reagans were aired by the networks that originally commissioned the works due to historical inaccuracies, so they are a valid comparison.

  • Brian K

    Whoever owns it should sell it to Netflix.

  • spangu

    EW need to do more research, The Kennedys are on the History Channel in the UK and elswhere, just not the United States.

    • jb

      Canada also gets the mini series on our History channel

  • spangu

    Actually someone needs to ask The History channel why it’s not a good fit for the brand in the US but it is for the UK. How about chasing a real story EW?

    • Andre

      It’s also going to be on History Canada.

    • Rose

      The New York Times did an article on it. The 2 historians that Mr. Surnow mentions in the story tried to make the script accurate, but most of their suggestions were ignored.
      *
      David Itzkoff in the NYT on Jan. 17, 2011
      :

      “After watching ‘The Kennedys,’ Mr. Dallek and Mr. Gillon continued to make their concerns known to History executives. Mr. Dallek, who was compensated for consulting on ‘The Kennedys’ and had an option to be paid for publicly endorsing it, chose not to exercise that option.”
      “Neither Mr. Dallek nor Mr. Gillon felt the mini-series met History’s standards. The board was also said to be strongly influenced by memos from the historians detailing remaining factual inaccuracies and errors, a board member said. When the final votes were tallied, “The Kennedys” had lost its United States broadcaster.”

  • charlotte888

    Make no mistake about it: Surnow’s agenda (and indeed he has one) was to make the Kennedys seem so sleazy that we’d all agree that they “got what they deserved”.

    That’s been the goal in some corners for years: frame them for the Diem brothers murder (which they tried to stop), frame Bobby for the Castro assassination plots (which he tried to stop), and frame them both for Marilyn Monroe’s murder… Anything to increase the perception of smarm.

    And many historians were appalled when they first saw the script, so God knows how reliable their original vetter could possibly have been.

    • jaymi

      why doesn’t the History Channel care if it airs a show in other countries that doesn’t show one of our past presidents in a good light?

  • tnsmoke

    Early copies of the scripts were floating around and it was obvious this was going to be a Kennedy bashing endeaver no matter how much Joel denies it. It amazes me how people hate on the Kennedys when, even with flaws in their personal lives, they all still devoted their lives to helping the common man. The Kennedys and the Clintons, a very unhealthy hatred. Let it go people.

    • John

      Lol – wow. The delusions of liberals never cease to amaze me.

      • nte1igentwon

        The utter lack of compassion and intelligence of SOME conservatives astounds me.

  • RT

    Do, let me see if I’ve got the right’s position straight:

    A hit job on the Reagans posing as a mini-series = bad and it being dropped by the network that was supposed to err it a victory of for all that is good a righteous.

    A hit job on the Kennedys posing as a mini-series = good and it being dropped by the network that was supposed to err it a moral outrage.

    • jaymi

      air

  • DFSF

    Rich, white middle-aged men whining about being discriminated, lol.

  • jayayyy

    I think this will be so insulting to the Kennedy family. If anyone wants a true account of the the story read
    The Kennedy Detail, one of the saddest books I’ve ever read.

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