Dallas, you have a problem.
On a nippy December night on a tucked-away Burbank backlot, scads of workers are scurrying about, crunching data, pointing, clicking, hammering, drilling, and otherwise plotting the destruction of the Texas metropolis. Moments from now, after weeks of round-the-clock, to-the-millimeter scheming, the crew will unleash the city's biggest nightmare since J.R. Ewing.
The workers retreat hastily as the warning is barked: ''Watch your eyes!'' Smoke floods the vicinity, explosions rip through the air, pyro-flashes blanket the dark sky, and flaming debris shoots every which way. Seconds later, annihilation has been achieved. A cheer rises slowly around the ashes. ''It's sort of like performance art, huh?'' grins high-tech wizard Sam Nicholson, surveying his smoldering success. ''And this is the Big One.''
Or so NBC hopes. Asteroid, a buckle-your-seat-belt Peacock mini-series about a meteorite plummeting toward earth, is headed for your television set Feb. 16 and 17. Boasting a hefty $19 million budget and 265 boffo special-effects scenes, the four-hour TV movie represents perhaps the most ambitious sci-fi film ever made for the small screen. ''A huge rock, exploding buildings, people fleeing...what's not to love?'' raves NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield.
NBC is counting on ratings that will equal if not top its most ambitious homegrown movies of last year, Gulliver's Travels and The Beast, both of which averaged a boffo 30 million viewers per night. How will the other networks defend themselves? With another kind of star power: ABC is banking on a rare Meryl Streep TV movie to lure at least women away; Fox will stick with its top show, The X-Files; CBS will air the feature film Dave, with Kevin Kline, on Sunday. ''Obviously the muscle NBC is able to exert makes them formidable no matter what,'' says Kelly Kahl, CBS Entertainment scheduling VP. ''But I expect Asteroid to skew like their minis in the past fairly young and male. With Dave, we're looking for something middle-of-the-road, with wide appeal to all age groups, to men and women. It's a broad comedy, an alternative to the end of the world or weeping with Meryl Streep.''
Asteroid was born back in 1994, after NBC movies chief Lindy DeKoven saw news reports about meteors colliding with Jupiter and promptly dialed up producer John Davis (Waterworld, Daylight). Davis then developed an action-adventure drama about American heroes racing to save the world from destruction, though Dallas and Kansas City don't fare so well. Michael Biehn (The Terminator) was tapped to star as a gritty Federal Emergency Management Agency director; Annabella Sciorra (Jungle Fever) plays the Colorado astronomer who first charts the impending disaster. ''There's definitely more of a theatrical quality to this,'' notes DeKoven, ''unlike any other miniseries we've done before.''
It's an offer you've probably found hard to ignore. In typical Peacock style, the network has bombarded the public since November sweeps with on-air spots, shrink-wrapped buses, and radio campaigns (win a free telescope to spot your own catastrophe!); a corner of the network's Burbank studio lot is even being remodeled to look like it had suffered an asteroid collision, complete with smashed cars and apocalyptic rubble. Total promo bill: $2 million.