‘Day After’ Still Volatile After 6 Years

Crying “censorship” and calling ABC executives “schlockmeisters, " director Nicholas Meyer wants his name removed from the credits of his landmark 1983 television movie “The Day After” when ABC broadcasts an abbreviated version of the film later this month.

And some advertisers are again backing away from the controversial made-for-TV film that graphically depicts the horrifying aftermath of a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.

ABC plans to cut about 23 minutes from the film to fit it into a 2-hour Monday night movie time period on Jan 23. But the network issued a statement Wednesday saying the editing would not damage the “integrity” of the film.

The Nov. 20, 1983, broadcast of the film was one of the highest- rated TV programs ever, sparked an international debate on nuclear weapons and triggered fears of psychological repercussions at a time when tensions between the two superpowers were high.


The original made-for-TV movie ran 2 1/4 hours. To fit it into a 2-hour time period for the rebroadcast, ABC informed Meyer last week that it planned to delete 23 minutes and 18 seconds from the film as well as save an additional 4 minutes by speeding up the film’s presentation using a process known as “video compression.”

The cuts are being made in all parts of the movie and are to include footage of the mushroom cloud, houses and countryside in flames and the desolate ruins of Lawrence, Kan., as well as shots of some of the gruesomely injured survivors.

“Anybody cutting a film to fit it into a television time slot is engaging in censorship,” Meyer said in a telephone interview this week from his home in London. “The sum total of these changes wrecks the movie. I was censored when it first aired, and I’m being censored again, and I can’t do a thing about it. All I can do is squeal like a stuffed pig.”

ABC executives were not available to comment on why the network decided not to run the film in its entirety or why it picked now--a time when tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States have dissipated significantly--to rebroadcast the controversial movie.

An ABC spokesman said only that the network was looking for a chance to rebroadcast the film and saw this month as an “opportune” time to air it.

“While the editing of any film is a difficult task,” the spokesman said, “the greatest of care has been taken to preserve the integrity of ‘The Day After,’ and we feel that this has been accomplished.”

In November, 1983, Yuri Andropov was still the head of the U.S.S.R., President Ronald Reagan was still calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” and the words glasnost and perestroika had never been uttered on the evening news. Only a month before the broadcast, the U.S. invaded Grenada, and two months before, the Soviets shot down a Korean passenger jet that had strayed over its airspace. The debate over a nuclear freeze in the United States and about U.S. deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe was heated, and the Administration was proceeding full-team with its Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars.

Anti-nuclear activists sponsored “viewing parties,” candlelight vigils and seized on Meyer’s version of Armageddon to mobilize the fight for a nuclear freeze and to force nuclear policy issues to the forefront of the 1984 presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration dispatched no less an emissary than Secretary of State George P. Shultz to a special ABC News discussion program that followed the film. Shultz argued that “The Day After” illustrated the unacceptability of nuclear war and the importance of the Reagan Administration’s policy of “balance and deterrence.” Sen. Alan Cranston, then a presidential contender, scheduled 136 fund-raising parties pegged to the film. And psychologists warned against allowing young children to watch the show.

The massive media hype and debate paid off big as the “The Day After” achieved astronomical ratings for ABC during 1983’s November sweeps. The network estimated that more than 100 million people watched the original broadcast.

The A. C. Nielsen Co. reported that a whopping 62% of all television sets in use that night were tuned to the film, making it one of the most-watched television shows in history. Nonetheless, many advertisers fled from associating their products with the show. Even at discount prices, ABC sold only 12 1/2 minutes of advertising time, and more than half of the prime-time movie aired without a commercial interruption.

ABC may have trouble with advertisers again. Although the commercial time for the Jan. 23 broadcast had been sold in advance without knowing what particular films would be aired in the “Monday Night Movie” slot, several firms were reported Wednesday to be unhappy after finding their ads were scheduled to run in “The Day After” and were considering withdrawing them.

An executive at the Leo Burnett advertising agency, which handles McDonald’s, said Wednesday that the fast-food chain “probably will pull out.”

Originally, Meyer said, the film was supposed to be aired over two nights, but when the network had trouble selling advertising time for the grim miniseries, Meyer was asked to prune about one-hour of what he called “padding” from the film so that it could be shown in one night. Meyer said he gladly accommodated the network, but against his strident objections, he said ABC then snipped out an additional 3 or 4 minutes, claiming that those scenes were “too violent, too powerful or too shocking for small children.”

Meyer said he also complained about the network’s insistence on including several disclaimers and apologies for the film’s content, but he said he would not object today if ABC agreed to run the film exactly as it did in 1983.

“When it was first broadcast,” Meyer said, “it was already badly damaged. These additional surprises are enough to get me to try to take my name off of it.”

ABC informed Meyer in writing that it intended to rebroadcast the movie last week. In describing the cuts, Andre de Szekely, ABC’s vice president of motion picture post production, assured Meyer “that all features presented on the network receive the care and attention necessary to preserve the essence and artistic integrity of a director’s work.”

Calling this claim a “ludicrous mockery,” Meyer wrote back: “It is clear that ABC will do anything it takes to push, cram and squeeze ‘The Day After’ into a 2-hour format without the least care for the narrative, much less the political or strategic coherence of the film.”

Meyer, author of the novel the “Seven-Per-Cent Solution” and the director of such feature films as “Star Trek II,” “Time After Time,” “Volunteers” and “The Deceivers,” said he can do nothing to stop the network from using his film in any way it pleases, and he did not know if he would be able to get his name removed from the credits. He said he did not expect to receive anything but a perfunctory reply from ABC.