Viewers Unite to Save Quality Shows

How series with low ratings can get a second chance

In the '80s, it was "Cagney & Lacey." Early in the '90s, it was "Party of Five."

As the networks unleash their flood of new shows for the fall, viewers may find another program with low ratings worth campaigning hard enough to save.

If you discover one, however, you'll have to move fast. In today's competitive TV market, programs appear and disappear like rabbits in a magic show.

For starters, "you have to let the networks know early," says Dorothy Swanson, president of Viewers for Quality Television (VQT) in Fairfax, Va.

Ms. Swanson founded the group in 1984 after leading a viewers' campaign to keep "Cagney & Lacey" on the air despite an initial season of low ratings. Following that success, "we wanted to extend our advocacy to other quality shows," she explains.

Today, the nonprofit VQT has 2,500 members. Members take part in monthly viewer surveys, receive newsletters, and attend the group's annual convention in Los Angeles.

Viewers Voice, a similar group in Wisconsin, was established in 1991 and has about 1,000 members. "I was getting discouraged when every time I started watching a TV show, it got pulled off the air," says founder Sharon Rhode.

VQT takes credit for saving "Designing Women" back in 1986 as well as keeping "Brooklyn Bridge" and "I'll Fly Away" on the air an extra half season.

Ms. Rhode cites "Party of Five" as her group's "big success." The Fox series about five orphaned siblings is going into its fourth season with stronger ratings than ever.

The idea behind these groups is simple: Banding together gives viewers more clout than speaking out individually.

But the two groups choose their battles carefully. "We can't take on every show," Rhode says. She encourages people to write the network themselves, contact their local affiliate, and write to sponsors who advertise during the program. "After all, they are the ones paying the bill," she says.

When VQT decides to campaign for a show, the goal is to generate enough publicity to translate into increased viewership. "The Nielsen ratings are still the bottom line," Swanson says.

In an effort to stir up interest, her group names the best new programs each season. "I remember the year 'Mad About You' was off to a very slow start," Swanson says. "When we named it 'best new comedy,' that got play everywhere, and more viewers tuned in."

VQT's emphasis is on "quality" programming of all sorts, Swanson emphasizes. "It doesn't have to have a moralistic view or be a totally wholesome family show," she says.

Ironically, the networks tend to listen more closely to people "talking about the dangers of certain programming," says Dave Berkman, a professor of mass communication at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

A number of groups are working to help viewers tune out programs they don't want their children to see.

For the past three years, the Parents Television Council has published a "Family Guide to Prime Time Television." Sponsored by the conservative Media Research Center in Washington, the guide rates each program for family viewing.

In the end, "all these groups have an agenda of one kind or another," says Al Race, editor of Better Viewing Magazine. "It may be an agenda as simple as 'We love "Star Trek," ' or it could be the religious right or the desire to have more cultural diversity on the air."

Mr. Race says many of his readers are parents who are too busy to write letters or advocate for or against programming. "Some deal with television by just plain turning it off. Some think it's a problem but feel powerless about it."

That's precisely the problem, Swanson says. While television may be a passive medium, viewers need to turn activist about voicing their preferences, she argues.

"If people don't start speaking up more, they're going to lose complete control of the programming we get," warns Rhode. "We could have a lot of control if people would band together a little more and start doing something about it."

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