Hitting TV With the Off Switch : Boycott: A viewer coalition plans a boycott Tuesday to vent displeasure with network programming of sex and violence.
Tuesday will be “Turn Off the TV Day” for thousands--perhaps millions--of viewers who plan to protest network programming by reading, bowling, knitting, eating, doing anything but flicking the “on” button of their television sets.
Refusing to watch, they say, will send the message that they are sick of current programming trends that they believe focus far too much on sex and violence.
If they don’t speak up, if they don’t grab the attention of network programmers under pressure to hang onto an audience increasingly lured to cable TV and VCRs, proponents of the one-day boycott predict that full frontal nudity, blood-splattering violence and televised executions will soon become the norm.
Conceived by a 30-year-old Delaware housewife and supported by a wide-ranging coalition of media watchdog groups, the “Turn Off” day is being publicly ignored by the networks, none of which had any official comment on it last week.
“Basically we do not believe there will be any effect,” said Peter Christanthopolous, president of the Network Television Assn., which represents all three major networks.
But ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are in for a big surprise, said Vicki Riley, the housewife and mother from Wilmington, Del., who first came up with the national “Turn Off the TV Day” plan 14 months ago.
“I’m expecting at least 6 million (people to turn off their sets),” said Riley, who heads Concerned Citizens for Quality Television and is chairing the “Turn Off” coalition.
The other groups involved are the New York-based Morality in Media, the Michigan-based Americans for Responsible Television, the Georgia-based Christian Film and Television Commission, the Illinois-based National Coalition Against Television Violence, the Washington-based National Christian Assn. and the Mississippi-based American Family Assn.
“We’re all concerned in some way with the content of TV,” said Brian Sullivan, director of TV monitoring for the National Coalition Against Television Violence. “(My group is) particularly concerned with the glamorized look of violence on TV, but all the organizations are concerned about this being a loud and strong message to networks that TV consumers want and deserve more diverse, quality choices.”
“Catholics, Protestants, Jews, across the board . . . even viewers not affiliated with any religion, are all joining in. It’s basically any parent with children,” said Betty Wein of Morality in Media.
“The vast wasteland is now a toxic wasteland,” said Terry Rakolta, founder and president of Americans for Responsible Television. It is a message she repeats frequently throughout the Eastern United States, where she is constantly on the stump these days, speaking out against sex and violence on TV, particularly during early prime-time on all four networks.
Characterized by her critics as “the Ayatollah Rakolta” two years ago when she first began a one-woman campaign to stop advertisers from sponsoring Fox’s “Married . . . With Children,” Rakolta believes that Tuesday’s boycott will work. She said she spoke with a representative of a major television advertiser four months ago in New York who told her that his company had already been calling the four networks to see about discounting their commercial rates on Oct. 29 because the company believed that viewership would drop.
“In the past two years, from the time I began, more and more people have come up to me on their own volition and have told me that they have turned off their television sets,” Rakolta said. “They just don’t watch network television anymore and I see an escalation. They don’t want their children to be exposed to this, so they simply leave the set off.”
Rakolta said selection of Tuesday as “Turn Off” day was purely arbitrary. She estimated that the newsletters and networking of the seven organizations alone will reach a minimum of 700,000 people.
Riley incorporated her Concerned Viewers for Quality Television shortly after Rakolta founded Americans for Responsible Television and first tried her turn-off day in Delaware on Sept. 7, 1990, as a statewide protest. It drew at least 5,000 supporters, she said.
Riley traces her original outrage back to a TV Guide article published in January, 1990, which predicted that the last of network TV’s taboos would fall by the wayside during the coming decade, as cable’s influence expands and over-the-air programming struggles to retain its dwindling audience.
“If we cause a significant loss for the networks financially, maybe they’ll get the message,” Riley said.
While downplaying the strength of the turn-off coalition, the Network Television Assn.’s Christanthopolous portrayed their tactics as a significant attack on First Amendment rights.
“Freedom of expression is an inalienable right practiced by the networks, and using threatening tactics against advertisers is not appropriate,” he said.
Christanthopolous said that studies conducted by both the Roper Organization and researchers at UC Santa Barbara indicate that the majority of America’s viewers support the networks’ treatment of sensitive and controversial subject matter. In an Aug. 5 letter sent to more than 7,000 advertising specialists, the Network Television Assn. cited those and other studies conducted during the past 10 years that show that less than 1% of the viewing public approve of boycott tactics, Christanthopolous said.
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