Network executives peering out the windows of ivory towers these days may find that the ground looks a lot closer that it used to. Factions of The Public, from whom those who run television for years, are finding new ways to ford the moat and scale the wall.
Interest in and enchantment with politics may never have been lower, but agitation over television is at a new peak. Perhaps the media are the new power and television the new politics. The network bosses probably don't feel like Marie Antoinettes njust yet, nor hear the clamor of rabble storming the palace but there are signs of very rough weather ahead.
When it comes to television and what it is delivering to the American home, there appoerars to be an apidemic of Fed Up, but there is also serious question whether TV's would be reformers really have the clout or the smarts to make the medium, in any significant sense, any better.
A new skirmish in the television wars last week, however, was clearly a victory for the rebels. Sears Roebuck & Co., under pressure from a group called the National Federation for Decency, announced it was withdrawing all its commercials from the ABC shows "Three's Company" and "Charlie's Angels" because of their sex and violence. Sears is the sixth largest purchaser of national primetime space and last year spent $63 million at the three networks.
But it doesn't stop there. At the same time, the president of Sears sent out invitations to the presidents of 20 other top network advertisers for and organizational meeting, on May 31 at the Sear Tower in Chicago, of something called the Business Advisory Council. it is been convened, a Sears spokesman says, " to reflect the business community's concern about television" and the way it's going.
Sears spokesmen would not release the names of the invited companies yesterday, because none have yet had time to respond to the invitations, but the list was obtained from another source, and it includes these huge spenders: Procter & Gamble (biggest of all TV adverstisers), Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, McDonald's, Ford Motor Company, General Foods, General Motors, Lever Brothers, Britol-Meyers and Kraft Foods.
Among the items on the agenda: where the vulnerable "preasure points" are the networks and local stations and how to use them to change TV.
Officially, the council will perform merely and advisory function for the National Parent-Teachers Association, which has exploited public dissatisfaction with television into a cause that is helping to save the organization itself from the threat of extinction. Since the PTA began lambasting TV for sexy and violent fare, a spokesman said yesterday, the membership "attrition rate" has decreased from 3 to 1 percent, "and we expect to turn around in a couple of years" and actually start growing again.
Television has long been the national football. Now there are signs the swift kicks are getting swifter and rougher. William Young, projects directors for the advisory council, says the broadcasting industry is guilty of "total disregard for the American public" and that "a new coalition of advertisers and the public" is being forged to fight for representation.
"There's such a demand for prime thime that Sears could take its $63 million and go away and the networkd really wouldn't feel it," says Sears spokesman Wiley Brooks from Chicago. But if even half of the 20 companies invited to the big meeting in Chicago show up, the implicit economic threat could be immense - into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Brooks says Sears did not pull its commericals from "charlie's Angels" and "Three's Company" because the national Federation for Decency had set up pickets outside the Sears Tower and in front of Sears stores around the country. Last year, Brooks said, Sears withdrew ads from "Starsky and Hucth," "Baretta" "Kojak" and "Hawaii 5-O" without prodding from any groups and the company "never even seriously considered" buying spots on such sexy shows as "Soap" and "79 Park Avenue."
But frin Tupelo, Miss., where he founded and runs the NFD, Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, a United Methodist minister, said his group was at least "partly responsible" for the Sears decision.
"The day before our picketing, Sears announced that corporate council thing, and the day of the picketing, they said they were going to withdraw their ads fron those shows," Wildomon said. "Now do you think that's a coincidence? We most definitely had an effect."
Wildmon hardly expects to stop with Sears. On July 14, he plans to have pickets in front of Ford dealerships "in at least 60 cities" because Ford is the next sponsor on his list of offenders - those with ads on shows that he considers carriers of "trash."
His next tactic, he says, will be to encourage year-long boycotts of sponsors who don't respond to his other strategies.
"I am not going to sit here and let pornography come into my home," said Wildmon, who has four children. "We don't enjoy using these methods. We tried every other method in the book, including writing to the networks and the stations, and it didn't work, and when you think about it this way is really as American as apple pie. We don't deny any sponsor the right to put a spot on any program they want, but we have an equal right to say that we aren't going to help them pay for those ads by buying their products."
Wildmon was on the horn just yesterday to companies whose ads he saw on Monday night's episode of "One Day at a Time" because it was "nothing but vulcar and obscene from beginning to end" and was a "humdinging good example" of video porn.
"They brought in these broads and everything," Wildmon said.
Wildmon is not the man to lead us toward a cultural renaissance. He views such words and phrases as "hell," "damn," and "Oh, God" as intolerably profane and fels there is no place for sexual material on TV at any hour, no matter how late. A first-rate production of "The Iceman Cometh" would be a boon to prime-time TV but it would drive Wildmon right up the wall.
Considerably more temperate, though just as angry, PTA consultant Young says his concern is not just with TV's Sexual and violent preoccupations but with the low level of program quality.
"The networks have gone from television violence into wall-to-wall jigglies for next season," Young says. "But we don't want 100 little houses on the praire, either. We say, why not go back to '12 Angry Men,' to the king of drama they did in the '50s? Things of quality are just not there."
It isn't easy to dream up great ideas for television, but it is easy to put three girls in nighties and have them prance through a mystery maze that wouldn't tax the world's dizziest mouse. There's no evidence that sex on TV has poisoned the nation's mind, but it could be boring us all ito comas.
In the past two seasons, Brooks saus, Sears has withdrawn its ads from 70 different episodes of various TV series after either reading the scripts of the shows or looking at the programs beforehand. The company keeps an "episode caution list" of potentially troublesome programs. The attitude troublesome programs. The attitude is not so timid, however, that Sears has acceded to Wildmon's demands that it also stop running ads on "All in the Family," which deals with touchy topics but usually in intelligent and forthright ways.
Whether the way to better television is through pressure on or from sponsors is unfortunately very very doubtful. Pressure from an hysterical activist group drove General Motors away from sponsorship of NBC's entirely laudable and eminently wholesome "Jesus of Nazareth" last year. If anything, what television needs is for programming to be more insulated from sposnsor control, from the tyranny that results when the slickest, cheapest and even the sleaziest is rewarded with the highest ratings and, naturally, the longest line of sponsors waiting to jump on board. "Three's Company" and "Charlie's Angels" will have no trouble in attracting sponsors to replace the lost Sears spots.
But there is something encouraging about all this indignation, because it at least reflects increased involvement by the public with the medium that ostensibly is there for its use and benefit. Thus it is that newtork executives regularly throw up their arms at such demostrations of interest as beig "interference" with their God given right to profits.
NBC-TV president Robert E. Mulholland warned recently in a speech that, "TV must never become a medium controlled by special interests," though of course that's exactly what it is - the special interests are the broadcasters and their clients. Former FCC commissioner Lee Loevinger, now like so many former FCC commissioners, a professional defender and apologist for TV, has compared such pressure as the PTA puts on advertisers to terrorists acts by saboteurs and kidnappers.
"The PTA won't shoot you, but they just might hound you out of the community," Loevinger said.
A spokesman for the National Association fo Broadcasters (NAB) said yesterday the NAB has no official response to the Sears action, "but of course this strikes at the basic economic structure of broadcasting." No kidding!
It's the basic economic structure of commercial television that is at the heart of the matter, and the people who run TV from those well-uphostered ivory towers may find they need more than self-righteous rhetoric in the monts ahead to protect their fertile turf. The crowds may not be at the barricades, but there are signs they are awakening from what may have seemed a passive stupor.