ABC stands firm on commitment to `Amerika'
``Amerika'' is proving to be the most controversial miniseries in television history. This 14-hour, $35-million drama about the United States 10 years after a Soviet takeover is being attacked from all sides - especially by United Nations supporters who feel the UN is being portrayed unfairly, and by Americans who feel that loyal political dissenters in the US are blamed in the drama for weakening the country's resolve. And then there are those who believe the whole concept of a USSR-UN takeover of the US will prejudice today's generations of American youngsters, who may find it difficult to distinguish TV hokum from reality. ``Amerika,'' which airs for a week starting Sunday, Feb. 15, is especially important right now for ABC, because it is essential for this network, acquired last summer by Capital Cities and now in third place in the ratings, to prove itself to the new eye-on-the-bottom-line management this month.
Why this month? Well, February is a ``sweeps'' period. Four times annually the local ratings services - Nielsen and Arbitron - conduct surveys in 212 markets across the US for sweeps surveys. The ratings then become the basis on which advertising rates are set until the next sweeps period. ABC is charging about $350,000 a minute for commercial time on ``Amerika.'' In contrast, ``The Cosby Show'' - the top-rated program on the top-rated network - rakes in about $380,000 per 30-second spot.
Do all the protests against ``Amerika'' make Marvin S. Mord, vice-president for marketing and research at Capital Cities/ABC, worry about the network's image?
``ABC has traditionally been the leader and innovator in terms of finding dramatic product ...,'' Mr. Mord tells the Monitor, ``very often creating some controversy but subsequently being acclaimed. There was negative reaction before the airing of `Roots,' because of violence and sensationalism, `That Certain Summer,' which dealt with homosexuality, `Something About Amelia,' which dealt with incest; a movie about lesbianism, and one about AIDS.
``Every time we've done a controversial show, we've conducted research subsequent to it and found that, in many cases, viewers applauded the advertisers for having enough courage to appear in something that might be considered controversial.
``The same is true of the network. I think the American public has clearly indicated it is ready to accept any issue, as long as it is handled intelligently and not gratuitously.''
Even though Chrysler last week reversed its earlier decision to sponsor ``Amerika,'' Mel Conner, senior vice-president of TV network operations at DFS Dorland, a major advertising agency, tells the Monitor, ``I consider `Amerika' a good advertising vehicle. I do not consider it a controversial program for\ most advertisers ... unless it somehow conflicts with the direction of their ad campaign or their sales market. I take Chrysler at its word about its reason. If I were Coke or Pepsi, I would be concerned because I sell my products in the USSR.
``Why all the fuss?'' he continues. ``Basically it has been done twice before in NBC's `V' and its sequel. But [in those shows] America was taken over by aliens from outer space, so it was more acceptable to some groups. I don't think `Amerika' is going to be another `Roots,' which got something like 60 shares. It should get shares in the 30s or maybe even a bit less ..., pretty much like `Peter the Great' last season. But I think it will be a shot in the arm for ABC. I believe we are seeing the end of the far-out series. We are more likely to see two- or three-night miniseries in the future. It's asking too much of the public to stay with a miniseries that many nights.''
Mr. Conner sees no analogy to ``Heaven's Gate,'' the expensive film that bombed at the box office and nearly ruined United Artists a few years ago. ``ABC might make a little money or lose a little,'' Conner says, ``but I don't think it will close the studio, ruin reputations, cause a network calamity. The only risk here is that maybe it won't do as well as ABC hopes. But in that case it will still do better than ABC's regular programming.''
David Poltrack, vice-president for research at the CBS Broadcast Group, is pragmatic about the effect of ``Amerika'' on ABC. ``If the show is critically panned and not viewed by high numbers, then there will be a public perception of ABC as a desperate network. But I think miniseries of this length are very high-risk propositions and probably not worth the money. Six hours seems to be about the right length for a miniseries. If `Amerika' fails, we will all be reluctant to do more.
``Given ABC's current rating level, I am fairly confident that `Amerika' will not perform significantly below that level. Therefore it will not affect their season negatively. On the other hand, I do not feel that it will perform at blockbuster levels - rather somewhere in between, in which case the chances of this program substantially enhancing ABC's seasonal performance and paying back its investment is small.''
Even R.E. (Ted) Turner has taken up cudgels against ``Amerika.'' ``Although I have not seen `Amerika,''' he said, ``I understand from people who have that it is full of hatred, misunderstanding, and is especially unfavorable to the United States and the United Nations.'' Mr. Turner's cable channel, WTBS, will present a five-program series titled ``Beyond Fear'' to counteract the anticipated effects of ``Amerika.''
Turner says, ``Our series will illustrate the constructive role television should play to bring individuals and nations together, inform them about one another, nurture mutual tolerance, and identify common interests and pursuits. `Beyond Fear' stands in contrast to `Amerika,' which exploits ignorance, fear, and paranoia about the Soviet Union. We and the Soviets will either live or die together.''
The first of the WTBS programs is ``Letter From a Dead Man,'' a 1986 motion picture produced by the Soviet film industry, depicting the horrors of a nuclear war launched by computer error. This will be aired Thursday, Feb. 12.
To sum up, several experts predict that because ABC has been having such a bad year in the ratings, it would be difficult for ``Amerika'' to do much harm, financially, to the network. In fact, there seems to be agreement that it could do better than regular programming. The major disagreement comes as to whether the miniseries will tarnish the public's image of ABC. Nobody believes that the series will benefit US-Soviet relations or public perceptions of the United Nations, but there is strong opinion that it is ``only television'' and that viewers are intelligent enough not to be unduly swayed by a drama.
According to ABC's own research of controversial specials and miniseries in the past, the network expects the public to emerge with an image of the network as daring and innovative. But the network still has some reservations, apparently. It has scheduled a meeting for today between top standards and policy officials and some of ``Amerika's'' most vehement critics to discuss the controversy and ways of defusing some objections.
But there are many observers who believe that ABC will be pejoratively tagged as the ``Amerikan Broadcasting Company,'' a company that in 1987 set back international relations and helped foster suspicion among Americans, some of whom will look to the future with fear and loathing fired by ``Amerika.''