In the deluge of television programming pegged to the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's death, the highest-profile special comes from an unlikely source.
The National Geographic Channel's "Killing Kennedy" boasts Bill O'Reilly source material, Rob Lowe in the title role and a respectfully B-list supporting cast, as well as a roll out campaign that rivals small films. The special is the channel's second adaptation in O'Reilly and co-writer Martin Dugards "Killing" series (it has already optioned the rights of their next, "Killing Jesus").
Considering that its first, February's "Killing Lincoln" set a ratings record for the network, it's no surprise that Nat Geo (as the channel has rebranded itself) is gambling big on "Killing Kennedy." But "Killing Kennedy" is a departure for the network in more ways than just its budget and star-studded cast, reflecting a larger network strategy led by Nat Geo CEO David Lyle to experiment with new forms of programming to expand its reach.
"Fun is what we're trying to make sure is part of the mix," says Lyle. In this sense it joins other unexpected Nat Geo programming like "American Gypsies," a reality series about a Roma family in New York, and "Brain Games," which explores neurology though interactive games and experiments.
"The content of the programs that we have is rooted to the core values of authenticity and shows are about something, but to that I hope we add entertainment," Lyle says.
Using O'Reilly's book as a jumping off point, "Killing Kennedy" follows the parallel stories of President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald as their trajectories head toward their fateful meeting that November day. However, unlike "Killing Kennedy," a docu-drama with a fairly narrow chronological scope, "Killing Kennedy" sweeps through four years of Kennedy's personal and political struggles, as well as Oswald's own evolution into an assassin.
"What I really wanted to do was get behind the history and get into the lives and minds of those two men and not only them but also their wives Jackie and Marina " says screenwriter Kelly Masterson.
"Killing Kennedy" is the network's first full-fledged historically-based scripted drama – or "factual drama" as the network calls it internally – making it unlike "Killing Lincoln," which had actors dramatizing scenes that were aided along by more traditional documentary narration. Whereas every line uttered by a character in "Killing Lincoln" can be traced to historical record – an approach first tried by Masterson in his initial "Killing Kennedy" draft – he and Nat Geo opted to include imagined, behind-closed-doors conversations between John and Jackie Kennedy, as well as Lee Harvey and Marina Oswald. The scenes, often a little cheesy, may rub some history literalists the wrong way, but Lyle and Masterson insist they stay true to facts while enriching the drama.
"There are one or two scenes that dramatize a situation, but those situations are pretty well known and pretty well reported in the hundreds of books about the Kennedys. There's no scene in 'Killing Kennedy' that someone could say did not happen," Lyle says.
Masterson adds, "I don't believe I was inventing intentions or motivations for either of them. I was creating dialogue, creating those intimate moments that would be real human moments."
These liberties aside, "Killing Kennedy" closely follows the accepted notions of the Warren Commission, that Oswald acted alone, following the approach of O'Reilly's book.
However, as it zips through the years preceding the assassination, "Killing Kennedy" does acknowledge the details of the assassination conspiracy theorists embrace – Jack Ruby's connections to the mafia, Oswald's fascination with Cuban separatists.
"I always liken it to knocking on the doors without opening the door," says Masterson, who admits to being somewhat of conspiracy theorist himself. "They're all part of our lore and part of our history and what interest us and what continues to bring us back to that subject."