It's far from election season, but one of the Twin Cities' wealthier and more prominent Republican families is leading a controversial campaign -- with a fabled Democrat on the ticket.
After being abandoned by the History Channel and rejected by other major cable TV outlets, "The Kennedys" will premiere April 3 on ReelzChannel, a small-fry cable operation owned by St. Paul-based Hubbard Broadcasting.
The acquisition is the boldest move in the channel's six-year history. While it's drawing much desired publicity, it also is scaring away prominent advertisers. The eight-hour miniseries, starring Greg Kinnear as John F. Kennedy and Katie Holmes as Jacqueline Kennedy, is an unvarnished look at the former president, dramatizing both his political savvy and his wandering eye.
The History Channel, which produced the project for $25 million, declined to put it on the air after Kennedy supporters, such as the late Ted Sorensen, slammed the project based on their review of preliminary scripts. The Hollywood Reporter has said that JFK's daughter Caroline Kennedy and JFK's niece Maria Shriver worked furiously behind the scenes to persuade executives to pull it from the schedule.
"I think it's difficult for the family and close friends to see a trashing of that Camelot image," said Barbara Perry, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia who is finishing a book on matriarch Rose Kennedy. "The Kennedys' aura and charisma still infuses our lives to the point where I can understand that some people would be upset seeing their heroes with feet of clay."
'We're not a political channel'
Television executives were so skittish about offending viewers and advertisers that it seemed as if "The Kennedys" might never get an American premiere. In mid-January, when Stan E. Hubbard, CEO of Reelz, read that Showtime had passed on the miniseries, he called his old friend Matt Blank, Showtime's chairman.
"Matt, is it that bad?" Hubbard asked from his headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M.
"No," replied Blank. "It's that good. It's terrific." Showtime just didn't have the time to squeeze it into the schedule before it aired in other parts of the world, Blank said. "Well," Hubbard said, "is there a possibility someone would talk to me?"
About 10 days later, Reelz, which has relied chiefly on movie trailers and sitcom reruns to fill its programming, had a tentative deal to buy the series from A&E Networks, which owns the History Channel. Reelz had three contingencies: The miniseries had to be quality television, it had to be fair and it had to restrain from "Kennedy bashing."
"We don't want to get into that game," said Hubbard, whose family has made generous donations to Republican candidates for decades. "We're not a political channel."
Hubbard and his wife, Jennifer, screened the entire series while Googling on their iPads to check for historical inaccuracies. "There was nothing that offended my sensibilities," he said.
Hubbard declined to reveal what he paid for "The Kennedys," but the Wall Street Journal said it cost him $7 million -- a steal by industry standards.
With just seven weeks for promotion, Hubbard has gone all in, buying up billboard space in several major markets, including the Twin Cities, and bombarding the airwaves with ads. He's reportedly invested $10 million in the campaign, more than Reelz has ever spent in an entire year.
Courting advertisers has proved difficult. As of Friday, Reelz had sold only 60 percent of its commercial time.
"If that's where they are just a week out, they're not in the best situation," said Harv Furman, director of market investments for Compass Point Media, a Minneapolis firm specializing in media planning and buying.
Furman said advertisers may be more nervous about the ethnic slurs that fly out of patriarch Joe Kennedy's mouth than JFK's bedhopping. "Advertisers are very sensitive about being politically correct in today's media environment," he said.
Hubbard, who said his family's Republican leanings did not factor into his decision to make the deal, believes more companies will sign on once there are more reviews like the one that ran Friday in New York City, center of the advertising world.
"'The Kennedys' is the best miniseries you almost weren't allowed to see," wrote TV critic Linda Stasi of the New York Post, which promoted her four-star review on the cover. "It's without a doubt one of the best, most riveting, historically accurate dramas about a time and place in American history that has ever been done for TV."
Reelz may be available in 60 million homes, but it averaged only about 3 million viewers a week -- until this month. Just the announcement of the acquisition helped boost that number to 5 million, and Hubbard predicts the audience will more than double in April, when "The Kennedys" airs, along with 50 hours of original programming tied to the miniseries.
Hubbard describes it as a game-changer.
"Sometimes I get mad about all this controversy that shouldn't be there," he said. "Then I remind myself that the controversy is what got it to Reelz."