‘Amerika’: ABC hopes controversial miniseries will result in high viewer ratings
By Tom Sowa
It would be no exaggeration to say a lot of people will be be watching ABC’s expansive series “Amerika.” It’s just as certain that people will tune in parts of the 14 ½-hour series for different reasons.
Following volleys of network publicity and media attention, the show should generate heavy viewership, at least during the series’ first evening or two. For good or ill, it’s made TV critics of people who otherwise ignore the medium or barely watch it at all.
The series, a cautionary vision of America in 1997 under the control of the Soviet Union, starts tonight at 9 on Channel 4 (KXLY in Spokane). It continues nightly except Saturday through Feb. 22.
Not accidentally, ABC is running the $35 million series during the February rating period, when all three networks and independent stations throw their best or most popular shows at audiences.
High viewer ratings will be a major victory for both the network and KXLY. “Amerika” has already made money for them, with each having sold nearly all their commercial time spots for the series at a premium rate.
The added boost from strong ratings would translate into higher advertising rates during most of 1987 for ABC and KXLY, both of which rank third in overall ratings behind NBC and CBS. In that respect, “Amerika” could become a key factor in improving the network’s overall financial picture.
The publicity and controversy behind “Amerika” have also commanded uncommon attention from people who normally disregard miniseries or TV in general.
Kathleen Donohoe, co-director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS), says she’s coerced a friend in Colville to let her watch the first evening of “Amerika.”
“I don’t have a television and if anyone asks, I’ll say I’m reading a book. But I’ll watch it because I need to be able to talk about the show later.”
Donohoe and others involved with the Peace and Justice Action League have set a press conference for Feb. 23, the day after “Amerika” concludes. The conference, at Westminster Congregational Church at 3 p.m., will provide a series of remarks on political, peace-related issues raised by the series.
The press conference is one of the few Spokane responses directed at “Amerika” by Spokane’s liberal/radical community.
Cris Currie, a PJALS representative and a member of a number of Spokane peace and non-violence groups, says he’s found most of the publicity over “Amerika” pointless.
“It’s not that important an event. It’s just a TV show. I’m not even sure I’ll watch it,” says Currie.
“‘Amerika'” represents about the worst TV has to offer. Very little on TV is worth my time. Most programs are either slanted in their political approach or offer information at such a simple level as to not be useful.”
Still, Currie suspects he’ll probably spy on “Amerika” for an hour or two. But he wished the response and publicity to “Amerika” had deeper roots.
“Those who do watch it should actively express their opinion. Too many people are not able to discriminate between the reality and fantasy elements in most of the things they watch.
“What bothers me is that people will criticize ‘Amerika’ but totally ignore the misrepresentations and the non-entertainment that’s always there on TV.”
Rod Stackelberg, associate history professor at Gonzaga University, admits he’d normally not bother with a show like “Amerika.” But Stackelberg has been asked by KXLY-AM radio to appear twice on a talk show to voice his opinions on the series.
Stackelberg, president of the Spokane Chapter of the United Nations Association, watched three hours of “Amerika” last week to see if his initial impressions of the show were sound. They were, he decided.
“It borders on the slanderous in the way it distorts the role of U.N. peacekeeping forces.”
In the show, America is occupied by the Soviet Union, but U.N. troops, ostensibly from Central America, are chiefly responsible for the violence and destruction directed against residents. Based on what he’s seen, Stackelberg says he found it a sophisticated version of “Russian-bashing” and slick propaganda that’s been designed to cash in on the “current fashion of strident patriotism” that’s surfaced during the Ronald Reagan administration.
Stackelberg will discuss the show twice during the morning talk show hosted over KXLY-AM by Kerry O’Brien. On Monday from 10:10 a.m. for about an hour, Stackelberg will voice the liberal reaction to the show’s first episode.
Former area broadcaster Mike Fitzsimmons will join Stackelberg and O’Brien to give the “moderate Republican” response to “Amerika.” The two will appear on O’Brien’s show one week later, on Feb. 23 at 10 a.m., to comment on the entire series.
For Kirby McKee, the local sales manager of KXLY, even harsh criticism of “Amerika” has been something to rejoice about. McKee was part of the KXLY sales staff that had to sell about 56 30-second commercials for the seven days of “Amerika.”
Out of every prime-time hour, the network gives the local stations like KXLY about 3 ½ minutes of commercial time to sell.
Selling those available spots might have been a challenge, he admits, since the ad rate for 30 seconds was $850, about $350 higher than KXLY’s usual prime-time figure.
But advance attention and media publicity generated an excitement ab out the series that resulted in Channel 4 selling nearly every minute it had to offer, says McKee.
That interest allowed the station to not drop its ad rate during the later part of last week. “A lot of people expected us to fire-sale – lower our rates. But we didn’t have to, which made me feel real good.”
McKee figures the direct advertising revenue KXLY will earn during “Amerika” will come to nearly $85,000.
Most of these advertising dollars have been bought by national companies interested in reaching designated markets. The rest of the local spots were sold to regional and local advertisers, he says.
Who bought those spots? McKee decline to identify the companies that have purchased advertising, other than General Foods, a major national company.
The advertising rates charged during “Amerika” have created a curiosity that has nothing to do with the politics or stereotyping present in the series.
While the average viewer’s interest will wane during commercial breaks, a number of area advertisers, ad agency workers and media broadcasters will look closely to see which area companies bought time on “Amerika.”
Dave Zack, media buyer and vice president of ad agency Clark White and Associates, says he actively discouraged his major clients from considering spots during the series.
“Our policy at the agency was based on two reasons,” Zack says. “First, the controversial nature of the series made us leery. Some of our clients were concerned that their image might be affected by the content of the show.
“And second, we felt the station was asking a rate that was overpriced for what ratings they can expect.”
Carlynne Storey, a media buyer for Robideaux and Associates, felt the same way. Earlier in the week Storey reserved a couple of spots for a local client. But by Friday she and the client had decided against buying advertising on “Amerika.”
Despite her business judgment, Storey says she’s going to watch the entire series.
“I think it will open a lot of eyes,” she says. “It will certainly give people something to think about. It’s a fact that what it portrays could happen here someday. Because my father was a history buff and my grandparents lived through the Depression, I’m interested in events and what changes occur to the whole country.”
Sunday, February 15, 1987