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'Amerika' Shows What TV Is--and Isn't

February 15, 1987|SERGEI ZAMASCIKOV | Sergei Zamascikov is a Soviet-affairs analyst associated with the Center for International and Strategic Affairs at UCLA.

A report critical of the ABC-TV series "Amerika" recently was the centerpiece of the Soviet Union's equivalent of "60 Minutes." Such prominent airplay goes far in explaining the differences in Soviet and American attitudes toward news, film and broadcast entertainment.

The weekly program, "International Panorama," is highly popular largely because of its format: It presents the Soviet viewer with one of the rare opportunities to catch a glimpse of life in the West. One of its recent features, for example, favorably presented the McDonald's fast-food chain.

The segment on the ABC miniseries, however, was quite predictably devoid of any pro-detente sentiment. This is hardly surprising. What is remarkable is that the reaction of the government-controlled Soviet media is strikingly similar to the reaction of some people and political groups in this country. Both sides see "Amerika" as encouraging anti-Soviet feelings here to create a climate against arms control and more supportive of armed conflict.

The Soviets have been protesting the miniseries ever since they first heard about it being in production more than a year ago. The reactions ranged from carefully orchestrated "public outrage" in the official press to the attempts to blackmail ABC by refusing to issue press credentials to the network's news correspondents. The criticism reached its peak a few days ago when Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, at a meeting with former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and other prominent American visitors, complained about the "high-powered information media in the United States" that "sows hatred toward the Soviet Union."

One can (and maybe should) dismiss all of this as simple propaganda from the party that has never spared the dark paint in portraying the West. But that would miss one important point that many people in the West sometimes fail to take into account: the tremendous significance that the Soviet leadership attaches to the electronic media, and Western media in particular.

It was the founder of the Soviet state, V.I. Lenin, who grasped the potential of mass communication in influencing public attitudes. During his exile years in Europe, he became acquainted with the Lumiere brothers' perfection of the projector for moving-pictures, which he declared would be "the most important form of propaganda." Long before the West dreamed of "Great Communicators," Lenin initiated regular radio addresses--in a country where hardly anyone owned radios. Most of the Soviet Union's city squares and parks still have loudspeakers to enlighten passersby on the "wisdom" of their superiors.

Lenin's heirs were quick to see television as a crucial medium for influencing the masses. Now the first real "TV politician" in Soviet history, Gorbachev, is finding Western, especially American, television useful for his own purposes. He not only never misses a chance to address a foreign TV audience; he also encourages his propaganda people to seek out every opportunity to appear on U.S. television. The era of media-shy Soviet officials has given way to smooth, telegenic spokesmen such as Vladimir Posner and Gennady Gerasimov, who have become almost as familiar in this country as local anchormen. This access to American TV is not reciprocal. Now the Soviets fear that all their new public-relations successes will be diminished by 14 1/2 hours of "Amerika."

The U.S. reaction has been no less dramatic than the one coming from the Soviet press. Even before the show was edited, callers began urging ABC to cancel it, threatening to boycott advertisers who bought commercial spots, demanding equal time to present the alternative point of view (as if there is an alternative view on foreign occupation).

The protesters seem to be missing one important point: American TV is not "the most important form of propaganda"; it is a commercial enterprise dependent on audience whim, not the government. The producers are under no obligation to respond to political, social, religious or any other pressures. They certainly should not be responsive to government pressure, be it American or any other. This is the strength of our political system, protected by the First Amendment--the kind of "luxury" that no communist government would ever dare to allow.

When one looks at the hoopla surrounding "Amerika"--which, incidentally, almost none of its early critics had seen--a somewhat similar campaign of a few years ago comes to mind. Some people thought that ABC's "The Day After," the account of a Kansas town dying slowly from the effects of a nuclear attack would have a most profound impact on the arms-control process; others asked the network for equal time and, yes, called for a boycott of advertisers. Now it is clear that "The Day After" was just a movie, nothing more, and if it is discussed at all now, it is by TV critics, not political scientists.

It is true that there are some larger issues associated with the subject of the "Amerika" series, and they merit serious discussion. Now is as good a time as ever to think about the nature of our political system and to ask ourselves if it has enough internal strength to resist totalitarian domination--from without or within. With the new, more active, Soviet political leadership, we have an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the nature of both political systems and what makes them so different and, some say, incompatible. If "Amerika" serves any serious purpose, it is that. Otherwise, it's just a show.

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