The Day After: On November 20, 1983, over 100 million Americans gathered in a vastly different TV landscape to witness the “What if?” scenario of nuclear annihilation in the made-for-TV film “The Day After.” This landmark production not only marked a pinnacle for the genre but likely played a role in accelerating the end of the Cold War.
Before the movie aired, its subject matter alarmed the Reagan White House, fearing it might shake America’s resolve. Reports surfaced of President Ronald Reagan asking ABC’s chairman, Leonard Goldenson, to “bury the movie” during a game of golf.
Conceived by then-ABC Entertainment chief Brandon Stoddard, inspired by the 1979 movie “The China Syndrome,” and gaining real-life relevance from the Three Mile Island incident, “The Day After” had advertisers terrified to be associated, featuring only 12 minutes of commercials and going ad-free for the last 45 minutes when the bombs fell.
Premiering the same year as movies like “WarGames” and “Testament,” the ABC presentation brought the horror of nuclear war directly into living rooms, with 46% of all US homes tuning in, second only to the “MASH” finale that year.
David Craig, a USC Annenberg School professor, explores the impact of “The Day After” in his book “Apocalypse Television: How ‘The Day After’ Helped End the Cold War.” It delves into how the commitment to telling crucial stories on television, even at the risk of commercial success, influenced public opinion and even Reagan’s stance on nuclear issues.
The book suggests that Reagan, viewing the world through cinematic narratives, changed his rhetoric within weeks of the broadcast, finding a receptive counterpart in the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev. In a way, the movie gave Reagan the license to emerge as a nuclear abolitionist.
Robert Iger, Disney’s current CEO, praised Stoddard for harnessing TV’s power to educate the public and raise awareness while delivering ratings and profits. “The Day After” not only signaled the end of the Cold War but also marked a shift in the TV landscape, ushering in the era of cable, streaming services, and the internet, forever altering the way audiences consumed content.