WORLD: STUART ELLIOTT IN AMERICA

Every November, just weeks after the autumn television season officially gets under way, the American broadcast networks seek to entice audiences with all manner of special programming.

The goal: flummox the Nielsen ratings during what's called a sweeps month, when audience figures help set ad rates. But this November, the programme everyone is talking about won't be seen by anyone for months.

The show is The Reagans, a four-hour mini-series dramatising the lives of the former President and First Lady, which CBS was to have presented in two parts on 16 and 18 November as the highlight of its sweeps schedule.

Instead, after an intensive pressure campaign against the fictional Reagans on behalf of their real-life counterparts, CBS changed its corporate mind.

Bowing to the complaints of the critics, the show was yanked from the network's line-up - even though tune-in ads already were starting to appear in magazines - and sent off to be seen on a CBS sibling, the pay-cable network Showtime, available only to subscribers, early next year.

Showtime, a smaller competitor to HBO, is perhaps best known as the home of the US version of Queer as Folk. But there's none so queer as folk who attack a TV mini-series, a programming genre notorious for the liberties it takes with facts.

So who were these self-appointed censors, able to force a powerful network to switch signals in one of the most complete and stunning capitulations in the annals of American broadcasting, an industry that even before this was never going to win any awards for courage under fire?

Well, if you thought the culprits were the advertisers or agencies that bought commercial time during The Reagans, you jumped to conclusions as readily as the opponents of the mini-series, who condemned it on the basis of script excerpts.

"We did not have advertiser pull-out," Leslie Moonves, the CBS chief executive who made the decision to pull the show, told the trade publication Daily Variety in a post-mortem interview last week. In fact, only one advertiser bailed, Moonves said, adding that, as with "all other potentially controversial" programming, "other advertisers wanted to see it" to consider buying spots in case anyone withdrew.

Tellingly, it was one of the legacies of the reign of Reagan that forced CBS to cave in: the puissant collection of conservative media voices that now exists in the US consumer marketplace.

From the internet gossip Matt Drudge to Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel to innumerable hosts of local radio talkshows, they quickly marshalled their forces to shriek in unison that the mini-series had to go because it was unfair and unbalanced.

What next, a burning of the footage during a live sweeps special on Fox News Channel hosted by Nancy Reagan?

Indeed, the attacks from the right against The Reagans have resonated with a vituperation and vehemence that made the attacks from the left against the Reagans two decades ago seem almost like accolades. And just as the pendulum swings in politics, the CBS cave-in is being met with regrets and anger. A headline from an opinion column in a newspaper in the Midwestern state of Minnesota says it all: "Cowards at CBS play us for fools."

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