Coalition takes aim at 'offensive' television

Of all the attempts made to clean up the nation's networks none has been so thoroughly organized as the campaign by the Mississippi-based Coalition for Better Television (CBTV), with its links to the right-wing political action group Moral Majority.

From March to May of this year, 4,000 CBTV volunteers have been monitoring the three major networks' nightly offerings to discover what in their opinion are the most morally offensive shows and which firms are their most frequent advertisers.

The results of that survey and the names of the top "offenders" are scheduled to be unveiled today.In addition, CBTV stands ready to launch a year-long boycott against the advertiser judged to have the worst rating.

The CBTV crusade is not the first of its kind. Various special-interest groups, each with their own particular ax to grind, have long lobbied the networks to change their ways. Everyone from the Parent-Teachers Association to the Gay Media Task Force devotedly tracks network television programming.But CBTV -- under the direction of Rev. Donald Wildmon -- is launching what could be the most far-reaching national boycott to date.

Not surprisingly, many within the television industry are angry at such outside attempts at coercion."A hit list is an unacceptable means of attempting a dialogue on what should be shown on network television," says ABC director of business information Jeff Talvin. CBS vice-president David Fuchs objects to the "removal of choice through economic pressure," but he doubts that CBTV's efforts "will end up in actual boycotting."

But others within the industry are not so certain. And while all three networks say their new fall programming has not been influenced by the rumblings of CBTV, others claim the demise of such shows as "Charlie's Angels" and "Soap" is no coincidence.

Indeed, a recent speech by Procter and Gamble president Owen B. Butler, reaffirming the company's commitment to monitor every program on which it advertises is being cited as evidence of CBTV's clout. Said Mr. Butler, "I can assure you that we are listening very carefully to what they [CBTV] say. . . ." Butler also noted that Procter and Gamble, the nation's largest television advertiser, has already withdrawn its advertising from 50 program episodes.

ABC vice-president Alfred Schneider has conceded that the number of advertisers pulling out of some of that network's more risque shows is increasing at a significant rate.

But the networks are not standing idly by. Both ABC and NBC have recently conducted polls in an attempt to prove CBTV is not speaking for most of the American public. Said Mr. Schneider, "We found that Moral Majority members tend not to agree on all things -- that they essentially watch the same programs everybody else does." NBC Television Network president Robert Mulholland said, "The results of our Roper survey show that the broadcasters are essentially correct and that the Reverend Wildmon is essentially out of touch."

Yet the industry's resentment goes deeper than simple economics. The bottom line seems to be the question of who is responsible for television's content.

Moral Majority's Cal Thomas supports CBTV's actions as an attempt to make the networks more responsive to the public's views. He shrugs off the idea that viewers can simply turn off offensive programs. "The airwaves belong to the people as much as they belong to anybody," he says, "We expect a city water supply to be pure, so why not the airwaves?"

But NBC's Mulholland disagrees: "We don't believe any group has the ability to limit the choices for the American public. If it's entertainment today, is it the news tomorrow? What's next -- newspapers, libraries?"

But as the Rev. Mr. Wildmon said at a recent press conference, "Somebody's value system is going to be in dominant control. I think I have as much right to work for that which I honestly believe in my heart to be right as those on the other side."

One group formed in response to CBTV's lobbying is the People for the American Way (PAW), founded in part by television producer Norman Lear. PAW is sponsoring its own television campaign of star-studded commercials arguing for freedom of expression. PAW research director Greg Denier considers recent attempts to remove books from public libraries is not unrelated to CBTV's efforts to change television. "The Reverend Wildmon talks about vulgarity and profanity, but soon you see that he is attacking ideas," he adds.

How successful CBTV's boycott campaign will be is anybody's guess. Reaction so far ranges from Robert Purcell of the American Association of Advertising Agencies ("It will simply be a media event") to Peggy Charren of Action for Children's Television ("Procter and Gamble's response is exactly what you can expect").

But perhaps more than one conscience is being pricked by CBTV's campaign. Said Leo- Arthur Celmenson, president of Kenyon and Eckhardt Inc. advertising agency, "We need to become censors for ourselves or others will step in do it for us -- and it seems as if they have." He adds that there is a great need for a dialogue between the networks, the ad agencies, and the advertisers to "talk about the real problems besetting television today."

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