With 'Mikhail and Boris Show,' ABC scores television coup


HOLLYWOOD -- It's a mind-blowing image: Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Boris N. Yeltsin standing by in the Kremlin, waiting for a football game to end so they can talk to ABC viewers tonight 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 at least 10 U.S. cities shortly after the game between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers.

ABC can only cross its fingers that the game does not go into overtime.

When the announcement came last 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.

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 month when they used the medium effectively as a tool to defeat the hapless coup that briefly unseated Mr. Gorbachev but then self-destructed, in part because of its ignorance of TV's impact in the modern political world.

Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. 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 Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey.

While media control has hardly disappeared, 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.

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