Meet the Author: David Craig
David Craig is a Clinical Professor of Communication and Director of the Global Media and Communication (MA) program at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. His recent book, Apocalypse Television: How The Day After Helped End the Cold War, details the making of 1983's The Day After, the highest rated TV movie in history and a noteworthy flashpoint of the Cold War.
When and how did you first get the idea to write Apocalypse Television?
I was doing my dissertation in 2014 about made-for-television movies that advanced the LGBTQ social movement, and my research led me to an interview with a legendary ABC TV movie executive named Brandon Stoddard. I knew he was responsible for The Day After, and I had heard these almost folkloric stories about how the movie changed Reagan's mind. So, I took the opportunity to discuss the film with him. I found out that not only was it true, but that there was a fascinating backstory and rich narrative about the challenges involved in getting the film to the screen.
I tackle related topics in the classroom, where I want students to understand the opportunities and strategies in creating a socially conscious and progressive work. So, the topic was a good fit for what I teach; it was a good fit for what I care about; it was a good fit for my background as a TV movie producer. And finally, in looking at the state of the world, I observed so many parallels.
Could you talk about some of those parallels?
At the outset of the project, I was thinking more in terms of the very real concerns we have related to climate change; and how we’ve yet to harness media in a way that makes that crisis real, relevant, dire and something that all we need to come together to fight. So, I was thinking about how we might harness media on that topic.
Then all of a sudden, while I was writing the book, the Cold War came back. Russia invaded Ukraine. Suddenly, nuclear power plants were being bombarded. There were very real threats of nuclear war, and nuclear meltdown. The parallels became almost too obvious.
There were other parallels, in that the Eighties saw the rise of the AIDS crisis; and, in 2020, we encountered another worldwide pandemic, COVID-19. Then, much the way cable disrupted broadcast media, we saw a revolutionary new form of media emerge: AI. There was also the rise of new political movements. Just as the Reagan era saw the rise of right-wing conservatism, we saw MAGA extremism during the Trump era. In short, the number of parallels became staggering.
Why do you think The Day After proved so popular and provoked such a powerful response?
It was a combination of strategy and luck. The movie was not the first to try to bring greater attention to the risk and threat of nuclear proliferation. But at that exact moment, we were experiencing a number of extenuating circumstances that revved up the arms race and pushed us closer to the brink. There was the death of Brezhnev and rise of new, unstable Soviet leaders. There was the ongoing escalation of arms buildup in the most precarious, irresponsible way, where we were developing enough bombs to destroy the planet many times over. There was a widespread, naïve confidence that we’d never experience nuclear war in our lifetime. There was a pileup of evidence from scientists of the very real threat of nuclear winter. And there was a slew of other entertainment vehicles, released around the same time, such as War Games and PBS’s Testament, all related to the atomic threat.
There was also the fact that members of the Reagan administration had started to espouse a theory of winnable nuclear war, which was spectacularly dangerous and helped contribute to the rise of a populist movement called the nuclear freeze movement. The Day After was not the match that lit the fuse; it was more like the last straw. It was part of a collective effort.
Interestingly, the success of a pop culture project like The Day After that raised the peril of nuclear war was exactly what Reagan needed to come out publicly as having always been against nuclear weapons. He was indeed a nuclear abolitionist, who did not agree with the more extreme members of his administration, who touted a winnable nuclear. He was dead set against that theory and wanted to get rid of all nuclear weapons. The Day After and its overwhelming response gave Reagan license – and cover – to champion diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear issue.
Did anything surprise you in researching and writing the book?
The biggest surprise was that the movie was slipped to a pair of rogue publicists, who got their hands on the film before it came out. Unbeknownst to the network or the filmmakers, before The Day After even premiered, these publicists were out promoting the film to every anti-nuclear rights organization in the world. In doing so, the publicists helped build a huge populist groundswell of support. They also helped create PR and marketing “buzz,” which helped catapult it into audiences’ consciousness and enabled it to appear beyond just the TV Guide pages. The effort and hard work of the publicists proved to be a sort of secret weapon, helping the film drum up more attention and focus.
Because I've worked in TV, I was well aware of the creative battles behind the scenes of The Day After. But the incredibly high stakes of these battles came as a surprise to me. Several people involved in the making of the film stepped away from more lucrative and powerful feature film careers to pour themselves into this TV movie project, not for the money, but because of the importance. They eventually found themselves getting fired from the project because they weren’t on the same page creatively as the decisionmakers, which I found very fraught and very unsettling.
The other big surprise that emerged from my research was the fact that the White House communications office dedicated vast resources to distort and hijack the themes of the movie. When they could not get the network to shut it down, they launched a full-throttle PR campaign, claiming: the film is conservative, pro-Reagan, and in favor of the arms race and previous deterrence strategies. The PR campaign failed, largely because Reagan didn't agree with his own Cold War strategy. So, after the movie aired, Reagan pivoted to a whole new approach involving more diplomacy with the Soviet Union – an approach that ultimately led to the end of the arms race.
Why is Apocalypse Television an important book for students of public diplomacy?
Public diplomacy is no longer just about back-channels between state departments, official news channels, and propaganda outlets. Entertainment, narratives, and members of the media can all be well aligned with the goals of public diplomacy. Public diplomacy students should recognize that if you want to influence public policy and how governments and state departments are perceived, one way is through storytelling. The best way to do that is to partner with the best storytellers in the world. And those are in Hollywood.
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