Controversy surrounds ABC's apocalyptic 'Day After'

One of the most controversial entertainment television shows of the decade airs on ABC Nov. 20, amid an almost unprecedented mixture of advance hosannas, denunciations, threats, and warnings.

After some three years in development and production (including some very recent deletions of material judged to be too political), the 21/4-hour, $6 million film The Day After (ABC, Sunday, 8-10:15 Eastern standard and Pacific time, 7-9:15 Western and Rocky Mountain time) is finally making it to your local TV station. Maybe.

Better check local listings to make certain, since some stations are reacting to the controversies surrounding the film and may opt to air substitute programming - just as many potential advertisers have opted to sponsor other shows.

''The Day After'' dramatizes the devastating effects of nuclear war on a group of average Americans. In the course of dramatizing a catastrophic yet seemingly limited nuclear confrontation, the film depicts the total destruction of Kansas City, Mo., and its environs, and the aftermath.

Slowly . . . intimately . . . the film involves the viewer in the day-to-day activities of a wide-ranging group of Americans, making them understandable, even lovable. Then, bang! The sun seems to explode as the bombs begin falling - as a result of a vaguely described Soviet-American disagreement. The viewer learns of the war just as an average citizen would - through incomplete news flashes on television and radio. Who actually started it doesn't seem very important. The destruction has begun.

In a six-minute bombing sequence, people are devoured by fireballs, burned, blinded, irradiated, turned to nothing or, even worse, skeletons. An electromagnetic pulse disrupts electricity and car engines. The only people who escape temporarily until the effects of radiation hit them are those who scamper into bomb shelters. Only cockroaches seem to be impervious to the effects of the bombs.

Survivors fight to gain entrance to hospitals and to sealed shelters. Somebody quotes Albert Einstein's prophetic words: ''I don't know how we are going to fight WWIII, but WWIV - with sticks and stones.''

The film succeeds in what it set out to do: horrify and scare people. It does not matter that the post-bomb problems of the fictional survivors seem to be irrelevant. That is both a strength and a weakness of the film - no individual concerns that arise after the bombs fall seem to be important anymore. It doesn't really matter what happens to characters played by Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, Steven Guttenberg, John Cullum, John Lithgow, Bibi Besch, et al., although the roles are played perfectly and are totally believable. After all, civilization as we know it is coming to an end . . . the trivial activities of the temporary survivors simply pale into insignificance.

One simple touch, perhaps, symbolizes the whole film and the point it is trying to make. ''Hello . . . hello . . . ,'' a voice crackles over the radio. ''Is anybody there?'' There is no answer.

Why has this film provoked such controversy? Certainly there have been other movies, such as ''On the Beach,'' which long ago depicted the results of nuclear war. And since Hiroshima there have been many documentaries about the horrible effects of nuclear bombs. But this show is an effective dramatization, coming at a time when the antinuke movement seems to be having a great impact on people around the world. And it is on TV . . . in your own living room . . . liable to have as much effect upon the people who watch as the evening news coverage of the Vietnam war seemed to have on viewers in the 1960s and '70s.

Both antinuke and pro-deterrent forces have been using the film to serve their own purposes. But whether one believes that full disclosure of the probable aftermath of even a limited nuclear conflict will encourage or, instead , discourage nuclear disarmament, the airing of this film is having a tremendous effect on the public's nuclear debate. ABC has scheduled a 90-minute ''Viewpoint'' special to follow the show, with top scientific and political figures discussing political alternatives to nuclear buildup.

Throughout the country, organizations are mobilizing to make certain that viewers get the most (or the least) from the show. ABC is providing school systems with Viewer's Guides to help those youngsters who view the show. ABC, however, plans to run an on-air advisory warning that the program is not recommended for children under age 12. They also recommend that families watch the television program together and that children of any age not watch alone.

In addition, many organizations are jumping into the controversy by offering guidance to parents. Several TV shows are planning ''The Day Before'' programs that will concentrate on legislative alternatives to the bomb.

In a recent press conference in New York, the writer of the film, Edward Hume , insisted: ''My objective was to create an experience. It was not meant to be a political statement . . . but there has been a political response.''

Said director Nicholas Meyer: ''The hardest thing for all of us to do is confront the nuclear issue. It's much easier to dial to another channel. When I began to work on this show, I found my worst abstract fears were realized. But I also found that it was a slightly purgative experience, doing the film and then watching the film. That's the first step towards talking about it, pro or con. You can't get a dialogue going if people are so terrorized they cannot even read the books.''

One thing almost all who have seen the film agree upon: It is not proper TV fare for children, who may find it a traumatic experience. ABC programming chief Brandon Stoddard says: ''Children viewing this show are of major concern to us. There will be an advisory at the start and after the first third of the film (before the start of the nuclear sequence). There will be warnings in the promotion and there will be a special introduction. We are very concerned.''

Not concerned enough, however, to air the special at 9 p.m. rather than 8 p.m (and even earlier in large areas of the country), traditionally the family hour for TV. On the night of Nov. 20, NBC is airing the three-hour beginning of its ''JFK'' miniseries, and ABC programmers do not want to give NBC a one-hour head start.

CBS will go with its regular series programming, so viewers will have a choice of assassination, nuclear destruction, or ''Alice,'' ''One Day at a Time, '' and ''The Jeffersons.'' ABC executives are concerned that the promotion for ''The Day After'' may be peaking too soon.

Impact on children

Two children's media experts told me that they are wary of the effect upon children of ''The Day After.''

Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television, said:

''I think that efforts to take it off the air are outrageous. The point of the movies is that this is an event we don't want to see take place. That information belongs on the air, as graphically as possible, because if we are not prepared to deal with the horror of it, we may all go up in smoke. It is a public service.

''But in the act of performing a public service, how do you protect the children?

''First of all, you must let everybody know what it is. The more noise about it the better, because people should understand how frightening it is and how inappropriate it is for young children. . . .

''Parents know their own children, and if they are going to let their teen-agers watch, they had better be prepared to let them stay up through the discussion afterward. But you cannot just turn the set off and go to bed.

''It's obvious that ABC has made a decision to be competitive so that nobody turns on the 'JFK' show and forgets 'The Day After.' They have chosen to be competitive rather than careful.''

Nicholas Van Dyck, president of the National Council for Children and Television, said:

''It is an important television event. However, I feel strongly that children 12 and under should not see it. Teen-agers might well view the program, but only if they see it with their family or close friends.''

As the air date nears, the controversy seems to become even more heated. Conservative organizations such as Accuracy in Media and Young Americans for Freedom send out material warning that the film is playing into the hands of antinuke groups, while more-liberal organizations seem to be rallying in support of the show.

Meantime, the programmers at ABC concentrate on what they may consider to be the greatest concern of all: Will American viewers, bored with ''The Day After'' hullabaloo, choose to escape to the easy entertainment of ''Alice'' instead?

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