Group wants good TV

December 13, 1992|By Steven Cole Smith | Steven Cole Smith,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Dorothy Swanson is mad. Disgusted. Not quite hopeless, but close. High-quality network television, she says, "is self-destructing before our eyes."

As president and a founder of Viewers for Quality Television, Ms. Swanson sees CBS' apparent cancellation of "Brooklyn Bridge," NBC's probable cancellation of "I'll Fly Away," and, if the rumors are true, ABC's preparation to pull the plug on "Homefront," as an across-the-board affirmation that quality is secondary.

But hasn't it always been with network television? Perhaps, but seldom have we been so forcefully hit between the eyes with the notion. Ms. Swanson took heart in last spring's renewal of the aforementioned shows, as well as several other high-quality programs. "I thought they were safe until at least after the first of the year. I wasn't expecting this."

The good thing about Viewers for Quality Television is that it is just what the name suggests. Most advocacy groups have a more specific agenda: Too much/not enough religion, sex, violence, ethnicity. VQT doesn't threaten, boycott, throw firebombs. They just insist that programs be good -- nothing more.

Not that this is a small requirement. Since Ms. Swanson began VQT eight years ago, membership has grown to over 2,000, and the organization was named recently by Entertainment Weekly magazine as one of the top 100 most influential forces on the business.

Here are the VQT-endorsed series for the 1992-1993 season:

"Brooklyn Bridge," "Life Goes On," "Murphy Brown," "Northern Exposure," "Reasonable Doubts," "The Wonder Years," "Seinfeld," "I'll Fly Away," "Law & Order," "Mad About You," "Quantum Leap," "60 Minutes," "Roseanne," "Homefront" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

These are the series that the group offers "tentative support" for:

"Coach," "Doogie Howser, M.D.," "20/20," "L.A. Law," "The Commish," "Picket Fences," "Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," "PrimeTime Live," "Civil Wars," "Heat of the Night," "Cheers," "Evening Shade," "Middle Ages," "Sisters" and "The Simpsons."

Of course, your list may vary. I'd put "The Simpsons," "Cheers," "Civil Wars," "Picket Fences," "L.A. Law," "Doogie Howser" and "The Wonder Years" on the A-list. I'd demote "Mad About You," "Reasonable Doubts" and "Quantum Leap" to the B-list, and add The Larry Sanders Show," "Home Improvement" and "Hearts Afire," replacing "Heat of the Night" and "The Commish."

But these are petty differences. The upshot is that you will not find, for instance, "Full House" or "Married . . . With Children" on the list, because "Full House" has never been funny, and "Married" has replaced wit with lewd stupidity. Both still do quite well in the ratings, though, but VQT has never been much concerned with ratings.

Ms. Swanson is, perhaps, more concerned than she has ever been about the future. "One of these days," she says, "the networks are going to wake up and wonder where all the viewers have gone. And they aren't coming back."

Still, she and VQT are trying, mostly by their letter-writing campaigns, to make a difference. She has received more than 5,000 letters in support of "Brooklyn Bridge" and, last Friday, announced a similar campaign of support for "I'll Fly Away." These shows are the two series rated highest by her members, which makes this a doubly troubling crisis. There are a lot of people, she says, "who don't believe that they are represented by the Nielsen families," who decide the ratings.

She is, of course, correct. If you would like to make your voice heard, joining VQT is a good way. Their newsletter, besides being informative and entertaining, gives you direct addresses of studios and network bosses who do, she says, read their mail. There is a small fee to join the non-profit organization and receive the newsletter -- as little as $5, but most people send more -- and it's well worth it.

Viewers for Quality Television's address is Box 195, Fairfax Station, Va., 22039.

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