What the `Amerika' controversy is all about. Advertisers cautious as air date approaches

``1996: The world is different. The dream is the same. Let freedom ring.'' That's the slogan viewers will be hearing over and over again on the ABC television network between now and Feb. 15.

But one dream - ABC's dream of success for its drama ``Amerika,'' scheduled to start that night - is in trouble already. The big question is: Will it still be in trouble when this 14-hour miniseries airs? And will ``Amerika'' cause irreparable damage to Capital Cities/ABC Inc.?

As the network begins bombarding viewers with its on-air promotional campaign for what it is calling ``the longest, most ambitious original miniseries ever produced,'' there are rumblings in the industry that ``Amerika'' may turn out to be as devastating a financial bomb for ABC as ``Heaven's Gate'' was for United Artists. The flap over the film has inspired a new epithet for ABC - the ``Amerikan Broadcasting Company.''

Chrysler Corporation's withdrawal last week from sponsorship of the series tends to bolster the speculation. However, General Foods, another major advertiser with a contract for around $5 million in commercial spots, is indicating that it will honor its commitment - perhaps.

``We're still in it,'' General Foods spokesperson Kathleen MacDonough told the Monitor. ``We have no plans to drop out. However, it has not yet been available for prescreening, and, based on our policy, we will determine if it is appropriate for the advertising of our products.

``We made a determination when this series was proposed, early on, that it is based upon a legitimate dramatic theme, and that is our reason for scheduling our participation as an advertiser. We are not viewing this in any way as a political program but as a dramatic program. We have no intention of pulling out, but if that were to occur, which we do not anticipate, it would be because of existing policy guidelines on selecting appropriate programs for the advertising of our products.'' Not exactly an unequivocal vote of confidence.

Just as ABC was crowing proudly that 90 percent of the approximately $35 million worth of available commercial time was sold, Chrysler, which reportedly had contracted for $5-10 million of that, decided to withdraw. According to Chrysler spokesperson Dennis Lopez, ``The subject matter and its portrayal are so intense and emotional that our upbeat product commercials would be both inappropriate and of diminished effectiveness in that environment.'' Chrysler's ``The pride is back'' campaign focuses on American patriotic feelings.

The Chrysler decision came after the carmaker's executives had screened six hours of the miniseries. Not a consideration, insisted Chrysler public relations executive Baron Cates, was an anti-``Amerika'' letter-writing campaign threatening divestment by some of the company's stockholders.

Despite the fact that viewers won't see Chrysler ads during ``Amerika,'' the company is still obliged to pay for the time, unless ABC finds alternate sponsorship. It seems probable, however, that ABC will offer Chrysler substitute commercial time on other ABC programs.

This miniseries about a Soviet-occupied United States in the year 1996 cost around $35 million to make. It could yield about $35 million in advertising revenues, if all 100 minutes of ad time (at around $350,000 per minute) are sold.

The era of the ``maxi'' miniseries, however, seems to be drawing to an end. Profits, according to industry financial wizards, must come from foreign, subsidiary, and rerun sales. According to John Sias, president of Capital Cities/ABC, ``The economics of making these things is not that attractive.'' (He did not comment on the fate of the planned 35-hour sequel to ``Winds of War,'' titled ``War and Remembrance,'' to which ABC has been committed for several years.)

Criticism of ``Amerika'' has come from just about every segment of the political spectrum. Pravda and the Communist Party in the USSR, peace groups all over the world, the Committee for National Security, the United Nations and the United Nations Association, as well as former ambassadors Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and George Kennan, and three former US secretaries of state - Alexander Haig Jr., Edmund Muskie, and Dean Rusk - have objected to various aspects of the series, especially its portrayal of UN peacekeeping forces as villains.

Both Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and Accuracy in the Media (AIM), seemingly at opposite ends of the political spectrum, object to the miniseries - for diametrically different reasons, of course. FAIR complains that it is red-bashing, while AIM insists it doesn't depict enough of the evils of communism.

Since none of the protesters has seen either a final script or a final version of the entire miniseries, which is still being edited (and perhaps changed to make objectionable parts less objectionable), ``Amerika's'' writer/director/producer Donald Wrye considers much of the protest ``knee-jerk reaction against the premise.''

But that premise is controversial enough: With little opposition from an America weakened by internal dissension and domestic protest, an aggressive USSR takes over, dividing the new ``Amerika'' into regional states encouraged to secede. Marx is celebrated as the father of the country; dissenters are sent into gulaglike exile, with the country run by a usurped United Nations Special Services Unit under Soviet control. The country is depressed; suicide, black marketeering, vandalism, and alcoholism are on the rise.

Kris Kristofferson, as a former Vietnam activist and presidential candidate, has been imprisoned as an enemy of the people. When he is released and ``reprocessed,'' he returns to his Nebraska home in the third episode, at which point the story really begins. After premi`ering Sunday, Feb. 15, the miniseries is scheduled to run for five successive days, with a break on Saturday, Feb. 21, and then conclude on Sunday, Feb. 22.

I have screened the first four hours and found it to be a slow-moving, political soap opera, in many ways not unlike the worst of the rather simplistic World War II French Resistance adventure films or, more recently, the two NBC ``V'' miniseries, in which creatures from outer space took over the US.

There's far too much exposition, as a myriad of characters are moved into place. The major fault, however, lies in a vagueness as to exactly what life is like under Soviet occupation.

There are good Russians as well as bad Russians, good dissenters as well as bad ones. And there are strong implications that the US was made ripe for takeover by internal dissension.

Mr. Kristofferson emerges from the initial four hours as a heroic symbol of the survival of principle, a martyr who has suffered but learned from his own and the nation's mistakes, a man who will be able to lead a new America to a triumph of good over evil.

Jeff Tolvin, director of business information for Capital Cities/ABC Inc., told the Monitor he is predicting a 35 to 40 ratings share of the audience for ``Amerika.'' That compares with the 62 share received by the controversial 1983 drama, ``The Day After,'' which dealt with the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.

How would such viewership affect ABC's overall ratings?

Marvin S. Mord, vice-president for marketing and research services at Capital Cities/ABC, told the Monitor, ``On an overall basis this season, ABC is the third-rated network. We expect this program will perform significantly better than our regular series programming on most nights. Something of this nature should deliver at least a 35 percent share of the viewing audience for their 14 viewing hours overall.

``My guess,'' he continues, ``is the ratings will be higher, rather than lower. There is a potential for certain of the nights to pick up to more exciting levels, especially the last Sunday.''

Mr. Mord estimates that some 130 million Americans will watch at least part of ``Amerika.''

Tomorrow television critic Arthur Unger estimates what impact the ratings for ``Amerika'' could have on ABC.

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