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IN THE SPOTLIGHT

February 15, 1987|Howard Rosenberg

"AMERIKA," Sunday, 9 p.m. (7)(3)(10)(42) (Illustrated on cover)--You may watch "Amerika" and wonder what all the fuss is about. Or far worse for ABC, you may not watch at all.

Rarely has a network miniseries blown in on such a jet stream of publicity. And rarely have the immediate prime-time fortunes of a network rested so heavily on a single miniseries. That's the way it seems, anyway.

It's easy to slip into hyperbole when discussing "Amerika," 14-plus hours of "What if?" drama spread across seven nights (beginning 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 8:30-11 p.m. Tuesday, and 9-11 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and next Sunday).

"Amerika" was bitterly attacked in some quarters even before it was seen. Considering the advance media coverage, it's unlikely that anyone already doesn't know the plot. But just in case:

The setting is a 1997 America that is ruled by the Soviet Union (hence the "k" in the miniseries title) through its puppet United Nations troops. It seems that the United States sort of surrendered to the Kremlin with hardly a fight.

Written, produced and directed by Donald Wrye, "Amerika" presents a grim scenario whose hero, Devin Milford (Kris Kristofferson), returns to his Nebraska hometown after being imprisoned by the occupation forces for being "an enemy of the people."

Many regard "Amerika" as the enemy.

It has been attacked by conservatives for being, in their view, too soft on the Kremlin. But louder opposition has come from the liberal side of the political spectrum, which believes that "Amerika" is a Soviet-bashing polemic that advances a right-wing view of East-West relations. It also has been criticized by the United Nations for the image it presents of the peace-keeping agency.

Perhaps ABC is reveling in this negative buildup in the belief that any publicity is good publicity. However, it remains to be seen whether its investment (the cost of "Amerika" has skyrocketed to $41 million, according to some sources) will pay off.

Running a poor third in the seasonal prime-time ratings behind NBC and CBS, ABC would love a blockbuster "Amerika" but surely would settle for a solid hit. Networks' long-term growth is built on regular series, not potential quick-fixes like "Amerika." Yet top Nielsens for "Amerika" at least would spark ABC in this month's important ratings sweeps, boost affiliate fortunes and build morale and confidence.

However, the image of "Amerika" has already been tarnished by the withdrawal of Chrysler Corp. as a major sponsor. Although the cast is generally good, moreover, it is not necessarily big box office. Besides Kristofferson, it includes Robert Urich, Wendy Hughes, Sam Neill, Cindy Pickett, Ford Rainey, Richard Bradford, Mariel Hemingway and Christine Lahti. "Amerika" is also bucking a trend toward shorter miniseries.

Perhaps even more critical, "Amerika" is a slow starter that some Madison Avenue experts predict will experience enormous viewer defections after Sunday night's premiere.

"Amerika"--grumbles and gambles.

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