Boycott of networks protests sex, violence and profanity on the air

TURNED OFF BY TV

October 29, 1991|By Eric Siegel Sun staff writers Susan Baer and Jean Marbella contributed to this story.

For five or six hours a day, Vicki Riley, her husband Timothy and three young daughters camp out in front of the television set.

She operates a day care center for children in her home in Wilmington, Del. He is a potato chip salesman. In the afternoons, when her oldest two children are home from school, or the evenings, "We watch news, sports, 'Full House,' 'Coach,' the Nickelodeon network," Ms. Riley says. "There are a lot of good programs out there."

Today, however, Ms. Riley and her family won't be watching anything. And she hopes hundreds of thousands of other families will join them in keeping their TV screens blank.

Ms. Riley is the guiding hand behind "Turn Off the TV Day," a one-day boycott of network programming designed to call attention to what she sees as a disturbing trend toward increased sex, violence and profanity on television.

"Our goal is to gain the attention of the networks and advertisers," she says.

To do it, she organized Concerned Viewers for Quality Television. Last year, she says, they were able to get about 5,000 people in tiny Delaware to not watch for a day. Today, with the support of a coalition of media-watchdog, Christian and family value groups representing a mailing list of about 700,000 people, she hopes to persuade millions nationwide to turn off ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

The networks act unconcerned. In fact, the Network Television Association, a trade group representing ABC, CBS and NBC, is so confident that the boycott won't have any measurable effect on viewing habits that it is planning to send out a press release tomorrow morning with the overnight Nielsen ratings for the major cities.

Suzanne Worden, vice president of NTA, admits she has received a "fair number" of media inquiries about the boycott but adds she "does not expect it to have any impact" on viewership and knows of no advertisers who have pulled their ads because of it. "We think what's on is reflective of what the vast majority of people want to watch," she says.

In trying to make some impression on the system, Ms. Riley, whose concerns range from violence on kids cartoons to made-for-TV movies to episodes of "L.A. Law," is part of a tradition of grass-roots movements trying to make a difference in the way we act.

E. Scott Geller, editor of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, is one who applauds such efforts. "Look at Mothers Against Drunk Driving. They changed the culture. The Great American Smokeout -- that probably increases in participation every year," says Mr. Geller, a professor of psychology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. "It gives people something to rally around."

Ms. Riley, who says she is acting "out of concern for my children," says, "I believe TV networks have to operate in the public's best interest and I don't believe they are doing so. People need to take back the airwaves," she says.

Whether her boycott will in fact be a step in that direction is a matter of some conjecture -- and debate.

Boycotts of advertisers on specific shows that some groups find objectionable, or of the shows themselves, are "relatively frequent," says the NTA's Ms. Worden, but internal network studies have shown that even these more focused protests have a negligible impact. "They give the perception that there are a lot of people out there," she says. "In reality, there are a very small number."

Even some of those involved in monitoring what's on the air question the advisability and effectiveness of the boycott.

Dorothy Swanson, head of Viewers for Quality Television, a Northern-Virginia group that focuses its efforts trying to keep what it deems "quality" shows on the air, goes so far as to say she hopes the boycott has "no effect whatsoever."

"We don't monitor TV. We watch it and enjoy it if it's good TV," says Ms. Swanson. "If it's not good, we ignore it, we turn the dial. We don't pressure advertisers to withdraw. We write positive letters to advertisers thanking them for advertising on shows we support."

Peggy Charren, head of the well-respected Action for Children's Television, which is not participating in today's boycott, said her group sponsored a similar event 19 years ago: TOTS, for Turn Off Television Saturday. She says boycotts work as a publicity gimmick but do little to change what's actually shown and says if she were to sponsor a day now she would call it Turn On jTC Television Saturday. "The problem for me now is parents don't know what their kids are looking at," she says.

But members of the coalition backing Ms. Riley's boycott -- which range from the Mississippi-based American Family Association, which has been heavily involved in protests of government funding of art it finds objectionable, to the Illinois-based National Coalition on Television Violence -- have asked their mailing lists of 700,000 people to simply turn off their sets.

"It's a key first step," says Brian Sullivan of the NCTV. "We see this as a public awareness campaign. There are a number of people out there concerned about the quality of television and willing to speak up and do something about it."

Patti-Bo Davis of Laurel, a grandmother of three, heard about the boycott through a newsletter of the Wheaton-based Maryland Coalition Against Pornography. She says she had no trouble getting 150 of her friends and neighbors to pledge not to watch television today. "The liberal media does not realize how family-oriented families are," she says.

Did she think the boycott would have a lasting effect? "I hope so," she says.

"We won't stop until we've seen some results," Ms. Riley pledges. "We'll do this [boycott] yearly if we have to."

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