Special Bulletin
Transfictional disavowal

by Tijani El-Miskin

from Jump Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 72-76
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1989, 2006

Edward Zwick's March 20, 1983, NBC television film, SPECIAL BULLETIN, contained so much overwhelming nuclear horror that the screen had to be frequently labeled with disavowals of factuality. The label informed viewers that the film was a dramatization and not reality. Despite the frequency of its appearance, I myself remember resisting the temptation to assume the label brought a weather report, perhaps a storm warning. The show was constantly interrupted by commercials, a supplementary disclaimer to convey the impression along with the label that the show was indeed a "dramatization." Far from it.

The commercial advertisements could not really help the NBC television network disavow the factuality of SPECIAL BULLETIN. Various programs — news bulletins, the Olympic games, cultural and educational programs that are supposed to edify the audience, interviews with heads of state on important matters — all become trivialized with commercial triteness. The audience knows this fact, has assimilated it, and takes it for granted. Therefore interrupting SPECIAL BULLETIN with commercials did not enhance its fictionality.

Faced with the force of the subject matter and style of the presentation, the word "dramatization" as a visual label did not totally dispel fears of possible reality. In fact, concerned viewers seemed to have disbelieved the network's label proclaiming the film's fictionality and regarded the label itself as another fiction. After the show NBC received thousands of phone calls to find out if the nuclear disaster depicted in SPECIAL BULLETIN was real.

To an audience that had barely recovered from a real story of the nuclear fall-out in Three Mile Island, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (or more accurately an audience that may never completely recover from the emotional horror of it, since the contractors who built the reactor found it too expensive to clean up their mess), the frequent appearance of the label "dramatization" may not suffice as consolation. After all, this is an age when anything (nuclear or conventional) may happen any time. Have the computers of this push button system not given quite a few false alarms of imminent Soviet attack, including one in the summer of 1980? Indeed, under such circumstances, the public's nuclear paranoia does not represent psychological panic but a healthy attitude.

President Ronald Reagan, during whose administration U.S. audiences watched SPECIAL BULLETIN, assimilated militaristic bellicosity even into his jokes (namely the one about wiping out rival nations from the face of the earth) less than two years after SPECIAL BULLETIN was shown.[1][open notes in new window] Both the memorial horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reckless nuclear possibilities are too immediate to be drowned by the screen disavowals. The audience had to react and phone NBC.

What really moved the concerned audience to phone the television network to separate fact from fiction was the film's technique and mode of expression. When we see newscasters as opposed to western cowboy actors, for example, on the television screen, we expect a "real" story: Peter Jennings or Dan Rather giving evening news on ABC and CBS, Ed Bradley reporting on "Sixty Minutes," Ted Koppel in the "Nightline" program that started with the so-called Hostage Crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, McNeil and Lehrer giving their reports on PBS, etc.

It is with this television convention in mind that SPECIAL BULLETIN's audience watches the film. The title itself imitates the procedure used in the above-mentioned programs. In the film, itself, the viewers face a group of newscasters giving minute by minute reports, taking "us" to the scene of the disaster and right into the nuclear ship captured by guerrillas. To transpose the conventions of journalism into the world of fictional television makes the audience ask NBC for an explanation. The power of the convention overwhelmed the disavowals that constantly appeared on the screen. Its power transcends even traditional documentary film's authority or that of epic cinematography. This transposition is what I call transfictional disavowal.

Transfictional disavowal has become established in literature. When we see a character called John Barth in John Barth's 1979 novel, Letters, for example, this challenges our earlier concept of the novel genre as a work of fiction detached from its writer; we find the name of someone we regard as this novel's detached author among its characters. And we are not quite allowed by convention to regard John Barth as, for example, a disciple of Dante, whom we find by name in The Divine Comedy. We consider John Barth a U.S. writer, writing after some limited novelistic convention has been established. He writes years after Cervantes, Richardson, Fielding. We will hardly forget these factors, although we have been warned by the Soviet author of the Dialogic Imagination, Mikhail Bakhtin, who discussed the continuous nature of the novel's evolution. Transfictional disavowal, namely that the text refuses any distinction between the world of the author's person and that of his novel, makes Letters' readers feel uneasy at the sight of a character called John Barth in John Barth's novel, Letters.

In SPECIAL BULLETIN, the equivalent of the character in Letters called John Barth is the television convention of disseminating news bulletins. We see transfictional disavowal in NBC television network's transposing the news bulletin convention into a fictional convention. No number of attempts by NBC through labels to separate the two conventions work for the viewer who is armed with the convention's daily-reinforced power, stronger than one continuous label below the screen. If we were in a movie theater, our anxiety about the "reality" of SPECIAL BULLETIN would be alleviated perhaps by walking out of a movie theater (a "fiction" house?). This would feel different from leaving the dinner table after being "informed" by a news bulletin, broadcast over television and told to us by Dan Rather or Peter Jennings.

To take another example, Peter Watkins' film, WARGAMES presents the horrors of nuclear war, using conventions similar to SPECIAL BULLETIN. Peter Watkins' film also relies on the newsreel technique, taking viewers from scene to scene. But strictly speaking, WARGAMES does not fall within our frame of analysis of transfictional disavowal. (It would have had it been seen by the audience Watkins made it for — British television BBC refused to show it.)

The viewer of WARGAMES knows s/he is watching a film in a movie theater, which does not share television's prestige of formally disseminating news bulletins. Conventional movie theaters show feature fictions. News bulletins, presidential addresses, etc., do not reach the public through the medium of the movie theater. Even if the movie screens were labeled with the words "true story," viewers of Watkins' WARGAMES would be skeptical about the film's factuality just as the many viewers of SPECIAL BULLETIN were skeptical of the film's fictionality, despite the label "dramatization."

Take it further. A movie theater's information agents (or officials) tell the viewers, "Please don't smoke in the theater," "Please don't speak too loudly," "We have drinks outside if you need them," etc. Even if these agents informed viewers that what they saw on the screen was true, the agents' voice conventionally only interprets the theater's policy and does not have authority about the movie's "facticity." Since television convention includes offering live coverage of events, television has the potential of convincing the viewer that what s/he is watching is really happening now, that the president, for example, is giving a press conference right now. Movie theaters do not have that kind of convincing control over information discourse.

As a medium, television has a separate function from that of the movie theater. On the other hand, in terms of information dissemination, radio has functions similar to television, including its method of live coverage. As a point of comparison we may cite one of the most striking instances of transfictional disavowal in the history of U.S. radio broadcasts. It is Orson Welles' October 30, 1938, broadcast of War of the Worlds, based on H.G. Wells science fiction novel of the same title.[2] The broadcast described an imaginary attack on the planet Earth by invaders from Mars. Like Stephen Spielberg's 1982 movie about visitors from another planet, EXTRA TERRESTRIAL (E.T.), Orson Welles' broadcast was also set on a Halloween night. The ironic implication of the event taking place on a night of national jest did not lead the frightened listeners into separating conventions: they did panic and asked if it were a real invasion.

Many of War of the Worlds' approximately 12 million listeners (a figure based on the 1930 census, American Institute of Public Opinion survey six weeks after the broadcast, and Hadley Cantril's research) who heard the Sunday night (8:00 p.m. Eastern Time) Orson Welles' broadcast knew that it was Welles speaking. If some did not, they were told at the beginning of the broadcast by the announcer, but they had to have tuned in on time:

"The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the air in War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. (Hadley Cantril, The Invasion from Mars, 1940).[3]

The announcer added further "Ladies and gentlemen: the director of the Mercury Theatre and star of these broadcasts, Orson Welles…" All the signs of fictional formalities were observed by the announcer, such as mentioning the name of Orson Welles, clearly not a newscaster, and appealing to a famous science fiction writer, H.G. Wells' name, evoking the name of the Mercury Theatre, and mentioning fiction-related words like "star," words not associated with news bulletins. This bracketing of fictional conventions did not lull the audience into a sense of fantasy. Not even the four spoken reminders from the beginning of the broadcast to the end achieved that purpose.[4] The operation of transfictional disavowal should force them to demand a separation of fact and fiction.

Of course, not every listener would be frightened into believing the invasion was real. Some may have known the fictional story. Others may have had other dispositions. But the impact of manipulating the resources of one convention so as to mingle it with other conventions had a concrete effect. Needless to say, the director Edward Zwick was fully aware of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds (see Los Angeles Times, January 31, 1983). Indeed even the name SPECIAL BULLETIN appears to have been taken from Wells' 1938 broadcast's manipulation of "factual" radio conventions. Very early in the beginning of Wells' broadcast, the announcer, as part of the fictional "drama," informed the listeners that the station would "bring you the music of Ramon Raquelo and his orchestra." As the music started playing, the following interruption was made by a second announcer

"Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance and music to bring you a special bulletin from the intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, professor Farrel of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The Spectroscope indicates the gas moving towards the earth with enormous velocity" (Cantril, pp. 56).

With this intense manipulation of media convention through transfictional disavowal, the music continues, underlining the illusion that it had been interrupted only because of the special bulletin. The announcer again interrupts to announce in a news bulletin that the government Meteorological Bureau requested the large observatories of the country to "keep an astronomical watch on any further disturbances occurring on the planet Mars." The story of the explosions are also confirmed by a Canadian professor; another professor from New Jersey says he hardly knows how to paint for the listeners "a word picture of the strange scene before my eyes, like something out of a modern Arabian Nights," and he goes on to describe the impact of the explosion on earth. Later in the broadcast the announcer even tells the listeners that

"I am speaking from the roof of Broadcasting Building New York City. The bells you hear are ringing to warn the people to evacuate the city as the Martians approach. Estimated in the last two hours three million people have moved out along the roads to the north, Hutchison river Parkway still kept over for motor traffic…No more defenses. Our army wiped out…artillery, air force, everything wiped out. This may be the last broadcast" (Cantril, p. 36).

At the end of the fictional broadcast, an attempt was made to reassure the listeners:

"This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that the War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be…We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the Columbia Broadcasting System. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business…If your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian…It's Halloween" (Cantril, pp. 42-43).

Despite several intense disavowals of factuality, over one million of the estimated nearly two million listeners who took the broadcast as a news bulletin became publicly excited by it. Cantril reports,

"Accounts of frantic telephone calls flooding switchboards of radio stations, newspapers and police stations are confirmed by figures secured from American Telephone Company. An increase of 39 per cent was reported in the telephone volume in Metropolitan New Jersey during the hour of the broadcast as compared with the usual volume of that hour of the evening" (p. 60).

He adds, "Three quarters of the station managers reported that mail volume exceeded 100 per cent of the normal number of letters received." In many cases the increases were over 500% (p. 60). What mattered for the frightened listeners was not whether the radio as part of the mass media could broadcast fictitious events. They knew that. But they trusted the radio as a medium where they received ordinary news bulletins and special bulletins about serious events, including any possible reports of the "invasion of the earth by Martians" (which they would not learn about in a movie theater, for example). When a television or radio fiction uses a highly developed exploration of transfictional disavowal, listeners are at the mercy of the media.

NBC presented some thirty-one messages proclaiming the fictionality of SPECIAL BULLETIN. In Charleston, South Carolina, the scene of the fictional nuclear disaster, the word "fiction" was permanently superimposed on a corner of the screen. This did not spare the Charleston NBC station from receiving hundreds of mostly negative phone calls. The Humanitas-Prize-winning SPECIAL BULLETIN, co-produced by Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz, and based on a story they jointly authored, was made on video.

The story revolves around a group of anti-nuclear protestors taking hostages, including a television cameraman. They enter into Charleston harbor with a tugboat called "Liberty May." They have a nuclear device that they threaten to explode unless the U.S. government hands over to them the Charleston-based detonating modules of some 968 nuclear warheads. They want to deactivate them as a first step towards unilateral nuclear disarmament. To cover the 36-hour crisis, they also obtain live coverage from a (fictitious) television network RBS, where two co-anchors Ed Flanders and Kathryn Walker cover the event with field reporters on the scene. Government commandos attempt to end the crisis by force. The attempt leads to catastrophe as the homemade device of the hostage holders goes off and destroys Charleston.

One of the film's basic assumptions is that "urban terrorism" can result in nuclear disaster. This assumption, of course, contradicts humanity's nuclear memory: the potential sources of nuclear confrontation are colonialism, imperialism, unbridled cold war, the escalation of arms build-up, and super-power rivalry. Our nuclear memory goes to the second world war, the Korean war (during which the U.S. President was said to have considered using nuclear weapons against the Chinese to end the war), the declaration of nuclear emergency by the U.S. during the 1973 Middle Eastern crisis, and other instances that are covered up by SPECIAL BULLETIN so as to project misleading scapegoats. The film presents anti-nuclear activists as potential nuclear terrorists rather than search for the real sources of nuclear confrontation. In that, the film is militaristic and avoids the crucial issue of disarmament. Instead, what matters for the producers of SPECIAL BULLETIN is not to promote peace through the mass media. They manipulate TV's potential for scaring people through mixing conventions, its potential for transfictional disavowal, so as to make a profit.

They exploit social fears, in spite of the lessons of Welles' radio program and the controversy within NBC that almost led to the show's cancellation. NBC showed the film, but not without hesitation. According to the NBC's news president, Reuven Frank,

"The only concern of NBC news was that SPECIAL BULLETIN might have been confused with a news bulletin. We agreed on various steps to ensure that the average viewer will not be misled in that way."[5]

The "various steps" include the 31 disclaimers, including those in the body of the show. And the director objected to these.[6] The disclaimers themselves did not work. Discourse conventions shaped the show's reception. Certain discourse are socially assigned to certain media of expression. The "entertainment" and "fictional" discourses are assigned primarily to Hollywood and to TV genres.[7] Television, in addition to engaging in discourses of "fiction" "entertainment," also can conduct "factual," "information," discourses.

Refusing to separate the two conventions overpowers the disavowal that tells us unconvincingly that SPECIAL BULLETIN is only a "dramatization."[6] It is essentially the transposition of two different conventions by the process of transfictional disavowal that moved the listeners and viewers of WAR OF THE WORLDS and SPECIAL BULLETIN (who are implicitly or explicitly educated about these conventions) to search for a distinction between fact and fiction. The social effect of transposing these different conventions underscores their vulnerability to manipulation.


1. President Reagan's bellicose "jests" were made on Saturday, August 11, 1984 during a microphone test for his weekly radio broadcast to the nation. The statement reads as follows: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed a legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." See New York Times, Thursday, August 16, 1984, p. 4.

2. H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1897.

3. Perhaps the most important detailed contemporaneous account of this Welles' broadcast based on Howard Koch's free adaptation of H.G. Wells novel is Hadley Cantril's 1940 book, The Invasion From Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. New York: Harper and Row, 1940; 1966. The book contains a complete script of the Orson Welles broadcast and detailed interviews with some 135 people, most of whom were known to have been frightened by the broadcast. He started the interviews one week after the broadcast and completed it in about three weeks. The book's general theoretical framework, as Cantril acknowledges (p. xvi), is an elaboration of the systematic outline in Muzafer Sherif's Psychology of Social Norms. It should perhaps be added that the panic caused by the Orson Welles broadcast was also recreated in a television movie called THE NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA, (Washington Post, March 20, 1983, p. L1).

4. The following announcement was made three times in the course of the broadcast:

"For those listeners who turned in to Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre on the air broadcast from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. eastern standard time tonight and did not realize that the program was merely a modernized adaptation of H.G. Welles' famous novel War of the Worlds, we are repeating the fact which was made clear four times on the program, that, while the names of some American cities were used, as in all novels and dramatizations, the entire story and all of its incidents were fictitious." (Ibid, pp. 43-44).

5. Quoted by Howard Rosenberg, "NBC: A House Divided Over SPECIAL BULLETIN," Los Angeles Times. (March 18, 1983, Friday), p. 1. For a "critical" assessment of Frank's position consider the comment that

"if NBC news president Reuven Frank and executive vice president Tom Pettit hate the show — and Pettit has been particularly vociferous on the subject within network ranks — it may be partly because network news has been aped so cleverly and accurately by a couple of guys from Hollywood, and also perhaps because the producers and their craftsmen came up with a better set for their anchors than NBC has been able to do over the years in umpty-ump expensive attempts." (see Tom Shales, "Bulletin: The Show that Shook NBC," Washington Post, Friday March 20, 1983, p. L10).

Shales may be right about the profit-making rivalry between NBC and Hollywood. And the film may have been a countermeasure to compete with the then-forthcoming ABC television film about nuclear catastrophe, THE DAY AFTER [see Howard Rosenberg, "Special Bulletin: TV Terror," Los Angeles Times (Monday, January 31, 1983), p. 8, Part VII. But the other implication is about exploiting public fears to make profits. The issue of corporation jealousy should not overshadow the crucial question of accountability to a public that is at the networks' mercy for both ordinary and special bulletins. Shales' argument virtually pushes for the show's presentation. But what about the potential of exploiting millions of ordinary viewers who do not control the networks?

6. Edward Zwick was quoted to have remarked,

"I won't be any part of that…I have absolutely no interest in scaring anybody, and I applaud the disclaimers, but not in the body of the drama." [see Howard Rosenberg, "NBC: A House Divided Over SPECIAL BULLETIN," op. cit., p. 1, Part VI.]

7. For distantly related disavowalist perspectives in U.S. popular culture consider the May 31, 1983 series of the ABC soap opera, MARY HARTMAN, the heroine of the same name gets so engrossed in watching a soap opera that she characterizes as "insensitive to human feelings," a visitor who tries to talk to her without being interested in the program. The visitor, Sergeant Foley, retorts, "Mary, this is a soap opera," at which point Mary wakes up from confusing life with soap opera. When television goes out of its way to promote such a confusion, it then becomes a problem of transfictional disavowal. Incidentally, that same evening ABC had shown another soap opera HART TO HART in which Jennifer, as a favor to her former college teacher who is now a famous romance writer, has to impersonate his female nom de plume to accept a book award he had won. This drama of authorial disavowal, presenting a successful author whose literary success may be ruined by a simple disclosure of his real identity — the man behind the nom de plume — underscores the multifarious disavowalist perspectives in the media.

8. The label also represents an interference by NBC to save its role as a partial monopolizer of "factual" discourse like news, presidential addresses, etc. The network cannot, of course, try to save this role by restricting commercial advertisements. The corporations sponsoring such advertisements collectively control the networks, which financially maintain themselves through advertisement earnings.