It’s a mind-blowing image: Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin standing by in the Kremlin, waiting for a football game to end so they can talk to ABC viewers Monday night about the Soviet upheaval.
Actually, it will be early morning in Moscow, but the two leaders are set to be interviewed live by viewers in 11 U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, shortly after the game between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers.
ABC can only cross its fingers that the game doesn’t go into overtime.
When the announcement came this week that Soviet President Gorbachev and Russian Federation President Yeltsin had agreed to a town meeting-style session with U.S. questioners--moderated by Peter Jennings in New York--it was a historic moment for television.
Barring another shocker in the volatile Soviet situation that could affect ABC’s plans, the interview should end the Labor Day weekend with a bang, with the kind of TV experience that viewers will remember for years.
ABC’s Los Angeles station, KABC Channel 7, says tentative plans are for the interview to begin at roughly 9:30 p.m., although viewers would be well advised to tune in earlier for updates. The Giants-49ers “Monday Night Football” broadcast begins at 6 p.m. here.
With the unprecedented interview already being dubbed “The Mikhail and Boris Show,” it is astonishing to consider how the two TV-savvy politicians are attempting to change the relations of Soviet leaders with the American public.
Their shrewdness about TV was illustrated last week when they used the medium effectively as a tool to defeat the hapless coup d’etat that briefly unseated Gorbachev but then self-destructed, in part because of its ignorance of TV’s impact in the modern political world.
Gorbachev and Yeltsin, however, are keenly aware of images, and their sophisticated acknowledgement of the workings of TV is in stark contrast to Soviet leaders of old, who looked upon American broadcast networks as potentially dangerous enemies during the Cold War.
Few cases illustrated this untrusting, icy relationship more than the furious Soviet reaction to a 1958 American TV drama, “The Plot to Kill Stalin,” which was presented on the distinguished CBS series “Playhouse 90.”
After the docudrama was broadcast, depicting Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev as part of a conspiracy to kill Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1953--denying him medicine as he lay dying--CBS Moscow correspondent Paul Niven was ordered out of the country.
The Communist government accused CBS of carrying other anti-Soviet broadcasts as well. And, punishing CBS, it forced the network to close its Moscow bureau for about two years.
In another incident in 1958, the Soviets denied the use of broadcast facilities for a brief period to NBC Moscow correspondent Irving R. Levine, saying he had violated censorship regulations during an interview with visiting Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey.
While media control has hardly disappeared from the Soviet Union, the furor over “The Plot to Kill Stalin” epitomized the lack of understanding of American TV and radio broadcasting by the Communists--or simply their refusal to tolerate it.
Delbert Mann, who directed the drama--and whose other credits include the film and television versions of “Marty"--recalled this week: “The State Department got into the act, saying that in this country we don’t have government control of dramatic shows, but that didn’t prevent the Russians from sending the CBS correspondent home.”
“Playhouse 90" was the birthplace of such significant dramas as “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “The Miracle Worker,” “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “The Days of Wine and Roses.” And “The Plot to Kill Stalin” featured an extraordinary cast, including Melvyn Douglas as Stalin and Oscar Homolka as Khrushchev, as well as E.G. Marshall, Luther Adler, Eli Wallach, Thomas Gomez and Marian Seldes.
But the Soviets did not, or would not, separate the CBS News division from the network’s entertainment department. In Washington, Soviet Ambassador Mikhail Menshikov branded the drama “a filthy slander” against his country, said it “can only be detrimental to relations” and held the American government responsible “since this took place on the territory of the United States.”
“It was fascinating,” Mann said. “In 1959, I went over to Moscow with a group from United Artists--(playwright) Paddy Chayefsky, (producer) Harold Hecht, Edward G. Robinson and Gary Cooper--for the first showing of an American film in Russia in many years: ‘Marty.’ I know the Russians knew who I was, that I had directed ‘The Plot to Kill Stalin,’ but they never made any mention of it. They showed us the red carpet. And the CBS News bureau was still closed.”
Daniel Schorr, who preceded Niven as CBS’ Moscow correspondent, said this week in a phone interview from Aspen, Colo.: “Paul was told explicitly (by the Soviets) that he had not done anything wrong, but that CBS had put on this scandalous, libelous show about Khrushchev. He tried to explain that that was CBS Entertainment and that CBS News had no control over CBS Entertainment.”
Levine, in a phone interview from NBC’s Washington bureau, recalled this week his own 1958 censorship experience and the old Soviet style in dealing with U.S. broadcasters:
“In my case, Humphrey had come over and went in to see Khrushchev and emerged six hours later. I persuaded him to go to the central telegraph office, where they had a booth set up with a microphone. The regular procedure was that you typed out a script and handed it to a clerk. The clerk disappeared behind a curtain, having left the script on an unseen censor’s desk.
“At some indeterminate time later--it could be minutes or never--they would bring your script out and have a stamp of approval on it, most usually with some words crossed out. You would then be permitted to do your broadcast, and they would connect you. I would place the call to my network. If you departed from the script or broadcast the words they had crossed out, they would simply cut the line.
“Well, I had a broadcast time scheduled and went into the booth with Humphrey, feeling that since he had just been speaking to Khrushchev, he’d perhaps be an exception. So I proceeded to interview him, and as I recall, we got through two or three questions, the censor presumably woke up and cut us off. Humphrey was outraged. I was then notified that I would be denied broadcast facilities for some days--three or four, I think.”
That was then, and this is now. Television, in its curiously democratic way, has forced governments out into the open. And now “The Mikhail and Boris Show” follows “Monday Night Football.”