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More like 'Dynasty' than serious history

It was billed as the most important and expensive television programme ever produced on the Kennedy family. The History Channel had pulled out all the stops to ensure its success, spending millions of dollars on production and promotion and enlisting A-list stars like Katie Holmes (Jackie Kennedy) and Greg Kinnear (John) to star.

The series would be produced by Joel Surnow, who created the wildly successful series 24. The script had been written and revised by a team of historians. Network executives were said to be anticipating huge viewing figures.

And then, last week, the show was abruptly cancelled. The History Channel released a statement saying that, after a screening of the finished product "we have concluded that this dramatic interpretation is not a right fit for the History brand".

Producers were left angry and somewhat bewildered, nursing the scant consolation that the series would be aired at some point ... in Canada.

If the History Channel's about-turn seemed sudden, however, it was anything but.

For months a concerted behind-the-scenes effort had been made to have the series axed. It began last year as the script was leaked and circulated. In it, the Kennedy men were depicted as womanisers and crooks and only passing mention was made to the major political events of the time, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In one reported exchange in the script, JFK asks his brother Bobby: "What do you do when you're horny? I mean, how can you stand the boredom?" Bobby replies, "I love Ethel," before Jack tells him, "I love lobster, but not every night. If I don't have some strange ass every couple of days I get migraines. I'm going for the Senate next year. I get married; there goes my sex appeal. I'm screwed if I'm judged on my merits."

The patriarch of the family, Joe Kennedy, was also depicted as a power-hungry philanderer.

An online petition -- StopKennedySmears.com -- was launched and filmmaker Robert Greenwald released a short video pre-emptively calling into question the accuracy of the programmes.

Greenwald won the backing of insiders such Theodore C Sorenson -- a former adviser and confidante of JFK, who called the scripts for the new series "one-sided and right wing" and said that they "suffered from a malicious, vindictive approach".

Nigel Hamilton, an academic and self-professed critic of the iconic dynasty, has said: "I find the version of JFK we see in this script to be almost nonsensical. It's almost as if it's just a kind of licence for them [the programme-makers] to switch back into the private lives of the Kennedys ... it presents him (JFK) simply as a sex addict. Why present it as serious history if you're not going to present the history seriously?"

The battle to have the series cancelled escalated in recent months as it was reported that Caroline Kennedy had made representations to the History Channel.

She has a deal with Disney's Hyperion publishing division, a deal that could have been in jeopardy had the Kennedy television series gone ahead as planned.

It's also understood that pressure was brought to bear at a corporate level. Executives may also have been swayed by the fact that the History Channel is owned by A&E Television Networks, which is itself jointly owned by NBC Universal, the Walt Disney Corporation and the Hearst Corporation.

A top Disney executive, Disney-ABC Media Networks co-chairwoman Anne Sweeney, is also on the board of the Special Olympics, an organisation started by the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of JFK. And, according to the Hollywood Reporter, Maria Shriver, wife of California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and daughter of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, is also reported to have lobbied to have the series pulled.

Executive producer Michael Prupas responded to the news by insisting that the eight-hour mini-series was "meticulously researched" and "historically accurate".

"It's the truth," he said.

"The goal of the script from the very beginning was to tell the family story of the Kennedys. There's much written evidence of what went on in that family. They truly were a great family that has a Shakespearian story arc that resulted in many tragedies and many great successes."

Prupas added that the Kennedy family's flaws had already been well documented and it was important not to cover them up.

In an interview with Elle magazine, Katie Holmes said that she had worked as hard as she could on the series and that by way of research she had read many books on the Kennedys and had watched hours of archival footage with her husband, Tom Cruise.

The controversy surrounding the series is reminiscent of a similar furore surrounding a 2003 mini-series on Ronald Reagan, which was pulled by the CBS network after intense pressure from Republican politicians and the Reagan family. That series eventually aired on the premium channel Showtime, and producers of the Kennedy mini-series now hope that their production will follow a similar path.

Still, it may be some time before viewers have a chance to see Holmes and Kinnear in the lead roles, and the axing of the show is a testament to the enduring power of the Irish-American dynasty.

As the family slowly recedes from mainstream politics in America, it maintains a breathtakingly wide sphere of influence.

Sunday Independent