VQT: A Rising Voice in the TV Wilderness

Times Staff Writer

Everyone complains about television, but nobody does anything about it. Nobody, that is, but members of Viewers for Quality Television.

Viewers for Quality Television (VQT) is a 4-year-old grass-roots organization that attempts to bring together TV watchers who may not have Nielsen ratings boxes in their homes but are determined to have a voice in what the networks put on the air.

“For some people, TV is just noise, it’s a filler of time,” said Pat Murphy, co-director of the Fairfax, Va.-based organization. Its second convention, last weekend at North Hollywood’s Beverly Garland Hotel, was attended by 175 members.


“But for some of us, who maybe have only an hour to spend with television, we really want to have it do something.”

Current series that VQT members have voted to endorse include “Newhart,” “L.A. Law,” “Frank’s Place,” “Kate & Allie” and “60 Minutes.” When one of these shows is threatened with cancellation, the group mobilizes through its newsletter to write to the network to try to save it.

With a membership of 5,000, VQT represents barely 0.5% of one Nielsen ratings point (each point represents 904,000 homes). Yet the organization has somehow managed to capture the attention of Hollywood’s television production community and, more importantly, that of the networks’ programming chiefs.

VQT is best known for massive letter-writing campaigns that helped save the CBS shows “Designing Women” and “Cagney & Lacey.” More recently, its members mounted an unsuccessful campaign to save NBC’s family drama “A Year in the Life.”

The VQT convention roster was star-studded, to say the least. Guests included former “Cagney & Lacey” producer Barney Rosenzweig, “Designing Women” co-executive producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason, former “L.A. Law” supervising producer Terry Louise Fisher, MTM vice president Bill Allen and television stars Tim Reid, Daphne Maxwell-Reid, Julia Duffy, Sharon Gless, Meshach Taylor and Larry Drake.

MTM’s Allen said he would attend VQT’s conventions even if “they only had three members who were as passionate and articulate as they are.”

As network television faces increasingly stiff competition, he added, producers find it increasingly difficult to sell quality shows that might not be immediate ratings winners.


“We need groups like VQT who can respond fairly quickly and grab hold of those shows and try to keep the networks from letting them go,” he said.

Although the networks say VQT’s influence is minimal compared with the Nielsen ratings, the network entertainment chiefs are certainly aware of the group’s presence.

When asked about VQT, CBS Entertainment President Kim LeMasters said, “I think they are certainly entitled to what they believe; they have certainly been kind to us and we’re grateful for it.”

LeMasters acknowledged that, unlike the single viewer, VQT has the advantage of organization and media access.

“I think there is tremendous publicity to what they do,” he said.

No one knows the power of VQT better than NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, targeted as the culprit in the cancellation of “A Year in the Life” last spring. Dorothy Swanson, founder and director of VQT, remains critical of the network.

“We’re not happy at all with NBC for abandoning the quality they used to strive for under Grant Tinker,” Swanson said.

Tinker, now an independent producer, was chairman of NBC and, together with Tartikoff, launched such VQT favorites as “Cheers,” “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties” and “St. Elsewhere.”

Tartikoff said he finds it slightly unfair that VQT judges the networks based on “what we take off, not what we put on the air.”

“I can guarantee you that if a year from now I’m thinking about taking off shows like ‘Dear John,’ ‘Baby Boom’ and ‘Tattinger’s,’ they’ll be the first to squawk--yet those programs are part of the wave of programming that knocked ‘A Year in the Life’ and ‘Molly Dodd’ off the air.”

After VQT’s skirmish with Tartikoff, Murphy and Swanson insisted that the group’s role was not only to protest cancellations, but to support networks for keeping good shows on the air. Nor does their campaign for quality mean that VQT wants to take off shows that don’t receive their endorsement, they said.

Sanitizing television is not the goal of VQT, Murphy said, noting that the violent, adult “Wiseguy” is popular with many members and would be as valid a choice for VQT endorsement as “A Year in the Life.”

“We get a lot of letters from people wanting us to clean up all that profanity, all that nasty stuff on TV,” she said. “We often get confused with that.”

Murphy and Swanson, as well as some producers, acknowledge that letter-writing campaigns have lost some of their clout since the “Cagney & Lacey” effort--and that the group’s growing size could work against them in the future.

Network officials say organized letter-writing campaigns carry less weight than large numbers of individual letters.

“I think it’s only natural that some of the network people will become jaded to these things,” said producer Rosenzweig. “If they grow too big and lose their spontaneity, they could lose their influence.”

Rosenzweig and others at the conference urged the group’s members to continue to write individual, intelligent letters--but to direct them to general managers of local television stations and their local newspapers, rather than launching deluges of letters on the networks.

Even VQT-weary Tartikoff urges viewers to continue writing letters.

“The best way to (influence TV programming) is to get included in the Nielsen sample,” he said. “Short of that, if I was a concerned viewer, I would write an articulate letter to the general manager of my local affiliated station, and hope I found a willing ear.

“And try not to write in crayon. It would probably help.”

(Those interested in more information about Viewers for Quality Television can write to Dorothy Swanson, Box 195, Fairfax Station, Va. 22039.)