ABC will proceed with production of "Amerika," a 12-hour mini-series about the United States under Soviet occupation, despite implied threats from the Soviets that making the program could jeopardize the network's news operations in Moscow.
"Amerika" was one of the films, along with "Rambo: First Blood Part II," "Red Dawn" and "Rocky IV," that Soviet cultural leaders, at a press conference early this month, charged with encouraging a "pathology of hatred" against the U.S.S.R. In December, ABC News Moscow Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers was summoned to the Soviet Foreign Ministry and warned by officials there that it would be "unfortunate" if relations between ABC News and the Soviets were to suffer because of the "Amerika" program.
Previous reports that "Amerika" had been "canceled" were inaccurate, ABC Entertainment President Brandon Stoddard said in a statement yesterday. "There was never any lack of our faith in the concept or the script for 'Amerika,' " Stoddard said. John B. Sias, newly installed president of ABC Television, said the decision to proceed with production was "supported by top management with the full understanding of what pressures this decision might bring to other areas of our company."
An immediate concern for the news division is its plan for "ABC World News Tonight" to originate from Moscow the week of Feb. 24, a plan the Soviets approved only last Friday. Peter Jennings, anchor for the broadcast, was asked yesterday if the Soviets had threatened to break the agreement on the basis of the entertainment division's decision to go ahead with the "Amerika" mini-series. "No, not yet," Jennings said.
"As of now," he said, "the Soviets have acknowledged all of our requests and acceded to most. And those they haven't acceded to are things we never expected them to approve in the first place, like a deep and penetrating study of the Soviet military. If they turn around and change their minds, then they turn around and change their minds. There's no indication of that yet, but then the network just announced its decision today."
On Jan. 8 in Los Angeles, at a press conference, Stoddard revealed that production of "Amerika" had been "postponed" and linked that postponement to Soviet threats it might jeopardize the network's Moscow news operation. David Burke, ABC News vice president, said the Soviets had contacted Rodgers to express "unhappiness" and "displeasure" over the program. ABC sources said yesterday that many in the news division had hoped "Amerika" would be scrubbed.
That led to some unhappiness and displeasure in this country on the grounds that ABC appeared to be capitulating to Soviet pressure in making a programming decision. On ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," ABC News commentator George F. Will characterized "Amerika" as "a program that was to be on ABC and is no longer going to be on ABC" because the network was caving in to Soviet pressure.
"Now I ask you," Will said, "if you had a similar report that an American network were taking into consideration the opinion of the government of Chile in its programming, I think you'd have the streets full of protesters." Will is scheduled to make the Moscow trip with "World News Tonight" next month.
An ABC source insisted yesterday that Soviet opinion was never a factor in the decision first to postpone and later to go ahead with the program, and that the decision was always based on financial and creative considerations. Capital Cities Communications Inc., ABC's notoriously thrifty new owner, wanted the show's budget trimmed, the source said. As a result, "Amerika" has now been pared down from a planned 16 hours to 12, a savings of at least $4 million.
Jennings said yesterday that "most reporting" on the "Amerika" affair has been "way off the mark," because the mini-series never was canceled, as some reports indicated, and therefore ABC never "capitulated to the Soviets," as some critics charged.
"Amerika," originally titled "Topeka, Kansas, U.S.S.R," fantasizes what American life would be like 10 years after a Russian takeover of the country. The script is by Donald Wrye, also the director and executive producer. Plans for "Amerika" originally surfaced about the time ABC aired "The Day After," the 1983 movie that depicted the destruction of Lawrence, Kan., during a nuclear war. Political conservatives denounced the film then, and some observers thought the announcement of plans for "Amerika" would placate them and calm some of the controversy surrounding "The Day After."
But an ABC source said yesterday that "Amerika" was already on the drawing boards before "The Day After" aired and was not being offered as an apology for that film. In his statement, Stoddard said "Amerika" would be "a powerful program about freedom and responsibility and the American character," and Sias said, "I think it will be a program in the tradition of 'Roots,' 'The Winds of War,' 'The Day After' and 'Masada' " -- all but the last huge ratings blockbusters for the now third-rated network.