Dorothy Swanson rattled the network's cage like it had never been rattled before.
In the summer of 1983, after CBS canceled the first-year police drama "Cagney & Lacey," Ms. Swanson and thousands of other devoted fans nationwide inundated the network with a spontaneous outpouring of letters and phone calls. The ruckus helped draw more viewers to summer reruns of the series.
And then CBS did a most remarkable thing: It rescinded the cancellation and returned "C&L" to the airwaves in early 1984, where it stayed in popular, Emmy-winning grandeur through 1988.
Victory to the viewers!
It was a sweet sensation, Ms. Swanson says, but it was also the exception.
"Other than 'Designing Women' in 1986, I can't say any other show has been brought back by a letter-writing campaign," says Ms. Swanson, now a Virginia resident, who went on to found the grass-roots lobbying organization Viewers for Quality Television (VQT) in 1984.
VQT, which has some 2,500 members across the country, grew out of that impromptu crusade to save "Cagney & Lacey."
Things quickly got more organized. When CBS exiled the first-year "Designing Women" to the purgatory of "on hiatus" in December 1986, VQT and others went into action.
"It was a very quick, very successful campaign," Ms. Swanson says.
Bud Grant, then-entertainment president of CBS, waved a white flag in surrender to garner a bit of good-natured publicity. Mr. Grant then restored "Designing Women" to the prime-time schedule and the series soon became an award-winning hit.
But letter-writing campaigns didn't do much for "Frank's Place," a critically acclaimed 1987 comedy series that CBS killed after one season. And the efforts of thousands of loyal viewers failed to persuade the networks to change their minds about other much-mourned shows, like "Beauty and the Beast" (1990), "Dark Shadows" (1991), "China Beach" (1991) and "I'll Fly Away" (1992-93).
"In general, letter-writing campaigns don't work because they tend to be Xerox copies of the same thing, the same form letter," says a CBS representative. "The organized campaigns are ineffective because they are limited to a specific group."
Earlier this year, NBC briefly restored hiatus-imprisoned "I'll Fly Away" to the schedule and credited thousands of letters from devoted fans for spurring the decision. NBC even used an on-air promotional campaign that cited the "I'll Fly Away" fan support factor.
But the ratings failed to improve and the series has flown away again,probably forever.
More recently, CBS banged the promotional drums for Saturday night's return of "Brooklyn Bridge" by saying it was acceding to fan demand. But some observers suggest the nostalgia-rich family comedy from producer Gary David Goldberg ("Family Ties") is already doomed, and that CBS is merely engaging in a bit of cynical viewer pandering.
However, the CBS representative says that because the furor surrounding "Brooklyn Bridge" is genuine, so is the network's response. CBS has received 26,000 letters, the most it's ever received in behalf of one series.
So "Brooklyn Bridge" is back for one last shot at survival.
Dorothy Swanson has grown pessimistic nevertheless.
"I'm very worried about 'Picket Fences,' " she says. "Fences" is one of the shows VQT has proclaimed Best New Quality Drama for 1992-93. Despite many critical raves, it has suffered low ratings all season.
Ms. Swanson blames advertisers as much as network executives for the current situation. "They don't want to buy a spot on 'Brooklyn Bridge' because it has only 8 million viewers," she says.
For more information on Viewers for Quality Television, write to: VQT, PO Box 195, Fairfax Station, Va. 22039.