When The Day After Terrorized 100 Million Viewers With a Vision of Nuclear War

ABC
ABC

Before Nicholas Meyer's made-for-television film The Day After had its official airing on November 20, 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan and his Joint Chiefs of Staff were given screening copies. In his diary, Reagan recorded his reaction to seeing Meyer's graphic depiction of a nuclear holocaust that devastates a small Kansas town, writing:

"It's very effective and left me greatly depressed. So far they [ABC] haven't sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled and I can see why. Whether it will be of help to the 'anti-nukes' or not, I can't say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war."

Just a few days later, the rest of America would see what had shaken their president. Preempting Hardcastle and McCormick on ABC, the 8 p.m. telefilm drew a staggering 100 million viewers, an audience that at the time was second only in non-sports programming to the series finale of M*A*S*H. According to Nielsen, 62 percent of all televisions in use that night were tuned in.

What they watched didn't really qualify as entertainment; Meyer stated he had no desire to make a "good" movie with stirring performances or rousing music, but a deeply affecting public service announcement on the horrors of a nuclear fallout. He succeeded … perhaps a little too well.

 
 

The idea for The Day After came from ABC executive Brandon Stoddard, who had helped popularize the miniseries format with Roots. After seeing The China Syndrome, a film about a nuclear accident starring Jane Fonda, Stoddard began pursuing an "event" series about what would happen to a small town in middle America if tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States escalated to catastrophic levels. Films like Dr. Strangelove had depicted moments between politicians debating whether to use powerful weapons of mass destruction, but few had examined what the consequences would be for the everyday population.


ABC

Reagan had dubbed the Soviet Union "the evil empire" in 1982, so the time seemed right to bring such a project to TV viewers. Stoddard hired Barnaby Jones writer Edward Hume to craft a script: Hume drew from research conducted into the effects of nuclear war and radiation fallout, including a 1978 government report, The Effects of Nuclear War, that contained a fictionalized examination of how a strike would play out in a densely populated area. Stoddard also enlisted Meyer, who had proven his directorial chops with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but considered the assignment a "civic responsibility" more than a creative endeavor.

Meyer and the film's producers selected Lawrence, Kansas (pop. 50,000) as the setting for the movie and got permission from city officials to turn their town into a post-apocalyptic landscape. Throughout the summer of 1982, tons of ash, dirt, and rubble were trucked in and spread over the ground; food coloring blackened farming crops. Thousands of locals were enlisted to portray victims of a nuclear attack, agreeing to roll in dirt and have their hair shaved off to simulate a miserable death via radiation poisoning.

Meyer believed that setting the film in a small town would make it more impactful and relatable to audiences. "Other movies that had attempted to deal with the subject of nuclear holocaust had always been set in big cities," he recalled in 2003. "But a great number of people in the United States do not live in big cities, so they were witnessing an event that seemed to bear scant relation to them."

That pursuit of realism wasn't always to the network's benefit. ABC originally planned a four-hour film to run on two consecutive nights, but filling up that much commercial time proved to be a challenge. Fearing a graphic and partisan display of anti-nuclear propaganda, many loyal advertisers refused to let their spots air during The Day After. (Meyer later joked that all the "generals" pulled out, including General Mills and General Foods.) They were ultimately able to sell a little over 10 minutes of commercial time, which prompted executives to condense the movie to a two-hour presentation. Meyer, who thought the script was padded to begin with, agreed with the decision.

ABC sensed that the film would be provocative and took unprecedented steps to handle the inevitable viewer response. A 1-800 number was set up to field calls from people concerned about an actual nuclear disaster; the network also issued pamphlets that acted as viewing guides, with fact sheets on nuclear weapons. Psychologists warned audiences would experience "feelings of depression and helplessness." Meyer was, in effect, making a disaster movie with the characters being offered no help of rescue. The film had been openly endorsed by anti-nuclear organizations as being a $7 million advertisement for their stance, and some TV industry observers wondered whether ABC would even air it at all.

 
 

Prior to The Day After's November 20 debut, actor John Cullum appeared onscreen and delivered a warning. Calling the film "unusually disturbing," he advised young children to be led away from the television and for parents to be prepared to field questions older kids might have.

A still from 'The Day After' (1983)
ABC

With that, The Day After commenced. It was every bit as terrifying as viewers had been told it would be. For the first 50 minutes or so, actors like Jason Robards, John Lithgow, and Steve Guttenberg established their characters in Lawrence, largely oblivious to an incident on the border of East Germany that triggered an armed response from both Russia and the U.S. As missiles fell, a mushroom cloud vaporized the community; those who survived were doomed to brief and miserable lives as radiation destroyed their bodies.

Dramatizing what had previously been a sterile discussion about nuclear defenses had its intended effect. Viewers shuffled away from their televisions in a daze, struck by the bleak consequences of an attack. The people of Lawrence, who had a private screening, were particularly affected—it was their town that appeared destroyed. Residents exited the theater crying.

What ABC lacked in ad revenue it more than made up for in ratings. The mammoth audience was comparable to Super Bowl viewership; the network even presented a post-"game" show of sorts, with Ted Koppel hosting a roundtable discussion of the nuclear threat featuring Carl Sagan and William F. Buckley. Sagan is believed to have coined the term "nuclear winter" on the program, while Secretary of State George Shultz argued the necessity of harboring nuclear weapons to make sure the nation could protect itself.

The experience stuck with Reagan, who signed a nuclear arms treaty—the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty—with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, leading to longstanding speculation that The Day After may have helped sober political attitudes toward mutually assured destruction.

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

Batmania: When Batman Ruled the Summer of 1989

JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

“Flop” is how marketing research group Marketing Evaluation Inc. assessed the box office potential of the 1989 Warner Bros. film Batman. The big-budget production, directed by Tim Burton and co-starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was expected to be one of the rare times a major Hollywood studio took a comic book adaptation seriously. But according to the marketing data, the character of Batman was not as popular as the Incredible Hulk, who was then appearing in a slate of made-for-television movies. And he was only a quarter as appealing as the California Raisins, the claymation stars of advertising.

That prediction was made in 1988. The film was released on June 23, 1989, and went on to gross $253.4 million, making it the fifth most successful motion picture up to that point.

While Marketing Evaluation may have miscalculated the movie’s potential, they did hedge their bet. By the time profits from the movie’s merchandising—hats, shirts, posters, toys, bed sheets, etc.—were tallied, the company said, Warner Bros. could be looking at a sizable haul.

When the cash registers stopped ringing, the studio had sold $500 million in tie-in products, which was double the gross of the film itself.

In 1989, people didn’t merely want to see Batman—they wanted to wear the shirts, eat the cereal, and contemplate, if only for a moment, putting down $499.95 for a black denim jacket studded with rhinestones.

Batmania was in full swing. Which made it even more unusual when the studio later claimed the film had failed to turn a profit.

 

The merchandising blitz of Star Wars in 1977 gave studios hope that ambitious science-fiction and adventure movies would forever be intertwined with elaborate licensing strategies. George Lucas's space opera had driven audiences into a frenzy, leading retailers to stock up on everything from R2-D2 coffee mugs to plastic lightsabers. It was expected that other “toyetic” properties would follow suit.

They didn’t. Aside from 1982’s E.T., there was no direct correlation between a film’s success and demand for ancillary product. In 1984 alone, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were smash hits. None of them motivated people to flock to stores and buy Gizmo plush animals or toy proton packs. (Ghostbusters toys eventually caught on, but only after an animated series helped nudge kids in their direction.)

Warner Bros. saw Batman differently. When the script was being developed, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber were urging writers to make sure scenes were aligned with planned merchandising. They scribbled notes insisting that no onscreen harm come to the Batmobile: It should remain pristine so that kids would want to grab the toy version. As Batman, millionaire Bruce Wayne had a collection of vehicles and gadgets at his disposal—all props that could be replicated in plastic. Batman's comic book origins gave him a unique iconography that lent itself to flashy graphic apparel.

In March 1989, just three months before the film's release, Warner Bros. announced that it was merging with Time Inc. to create the mega-conglomerate Time-Warner, which would allow the film studio to capitalize on a deep bench of talent to help drive the “event” feel of the film.

Prince was signed to Warner's record label and agreed to compose an album of concept music that was tied to the characters; “Batdance" was among the songs and became a #1 hit. Their licensing arm, Licensing Corporation of America, contracted with 300 licensees to create more than 100 products, some of which were featured in an expansive brochure that resembled a bat-eared Neiman Marcus catalog. The sheer glut of product became a story, as evidenced by this Entertainment Tonight segment on the film's licensing push:

In addition to the rhinestone jacket, fans could opt for the Batman watch ($34.95), a baseball cap ($7.95), bicycle shorts ($26.95), a matching top ($24.95), a model Batwing ($29.95), action figures ($5.95), and a satin jacket modeled by Batman co-creator Bob Kane ($49.95).

The Batman logo became a way of communicating anticipation for the film. The virtually textless teaser poster, which had only the June 23 opening date printed on it, was snapped up and taped to walls. (Roughly 1200 of the posters sized for bus stops and subways were stolen, a crude but effective form of market research.) In barber shops, people began asking to have the logo sheared into the sides of their heads. The Batman symbol was omnipresent. If you had forgotten about the movie for even five minutes, someone would eventually walk by sporting a pair of Batman earrings to remind you.

At Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, 7000 packs of Batman trading cards flew out the door. Management hired additional staff and a security guard to handle the crowds. The store carried 36 different kinds of Batman T-shirts. Observers compared the hysteria to the hula hoop craze of the 1950s.

One retailer made a more contemporary comparison. “There’s no question Batman is the hottest thing this year,” Marie Strong, manager of It’s a Small World at a mall in La Crosse, Wisconsin, told the La Crosse Tribune. “[It’s] the hottest [thing] since Spuds McKenzie toward the end of last year.”

 

By the time Batman was in theaters and breaking records—it became the first film to make $100 million in just 10 days, alerting studios to the idea of short-term profits—the merchandising had become an avalanche. Stores that didn’t normally carry licensed goods, like Macy’s, set up displays.

Not everyone opted for officially-licensed apparel: U.S. marshals conducted raids across the country, seizing more than 40,000 counterfeit Batman shirts and other bogus items.

Collectively, Warner raked in $500 million from legitimate products. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the studio claimed only $2.9 million in profit had been realized from merchandising and that the movie itself was in a $35.8 million financial hole owing to excessive promotional and production costs. It was a tale typical of creative studio accounting, long a method for avoiding payouts to net profit participants. (Nicholson, whose contract stipulated a cut of all profits, earned $50 million.)

Whatever financial sleight-of-hand was implemented, Warner clearly counted on Batman to be a money-printing operation. Merchandising plans for the sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, were even more strategic, including a tie-in agreement with McDonald’s for Happy Meals. In a meta moment, one deleted script passage even had Batman’s enemies attacking a toy store in Gotham full of Batman merchandise. The set was built but the scene never made it onscreen.

The studio was willing to give Burton more control over the film, which was decidedly darker and more sexualized than the original. Batman Returns was hardly a failure, but merchandising was no longer as hot as it was in the summer of 1989. Instead of selling out of shirts, stores ended up marking down excess inventory. McDonald’s, unhappy with the content of the film, enacted a policy of screening movies they planned to partner with before making any agreements. By the time Warner released 1995’s Batman Forever, the franchise was essentially a feature-length toy commercial.

It paid off. Licensing for the film topped $1 billion. Today, given the choice between a film with Oscar-level prestige or one with the potential to have its logo emblazoned on a rhinestone jacket that people would actually want to buy, studios would probably choose the latter. In that sense, the Batmania of 1989 endures.

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