Crusaders against sex, violence and profanity on TV yesterday managed the neat trick of sounding a retreat and at the same time declaring a victory in their moral war against the networks.
At a press conference called for the announced purpose of naming sponsors of offensive TV programs, the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, head of the 5-month-old Coalition for Better Television, said the group has called off a planned boycott of offending advertisers and he declined to name any of the companies who allegedly underwrite excessively sexy, violent or profane TV shows.
"For us to follow through with the boycott at this point would be to place ourselves at the insulting level of network mentality," Wildmon said in a prepared statement. And the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whose Moral Majority is one of the Coalition's member groups, said that meetings between Coalition representatives and advertisers had made the boycott unnecessary.
"We got caught up on a merry-go-round," said Falwell. "One person could not get off by himself. The Coalition simply provided a catalyst that made it possible for everybody to get off at the same time. And I think that everybody is getting off at the same time."
But as late as Friday, Wildmon conceded, the Coalition was clinging to its wooden horse. In Jackson, Miss., he told a UPI reporter that the boycott was "something we feel has to be done." Wildmon and Falwell were at a loss to explain what had happened to change their minds at the last minute.
Both praised the advertisers who had been contacted for their alleged willingness to toe the new line. "These are honorable men," Falwell said.
"They've been fair with us in their willingness to talk and to agree on what they will or will not do and now the only fair thing the Coalition can do is say, 'Okay, we'll wait till this fall to make sure everything is done as is said.' And at that time, all the facts will be out and all the fat will be in the fire."
Falwell said a "war chest" is being readied in case of a boycott campaign and said that the Moral Majority had sent its members letters last Friday asking for funds to support the Clean Up TV effort. Wildmon said the Coalition's next pronouncements on the fitness of TV shows will be made public after Jan. 1, when fall monitoring has been completed.
The Coalition has been monitoring TV programming for three months and has compiled a list of the sponsors who turn up most often on shows the group considers offensive for one reason or another. But Wildmon said the list would not be made public nor a single offending sponsor named. Falwell said that to name them now would be tantamount to calling for a boycott.
"We are not the radicals that we've been painted to be," Falwell said, reflecting what appeared to be the assumption of a lower profile after weeks of hellfire and brimstone directed against the networks.
Both Falwell and Wildmon anticipated the charge that the boycott was dropped because they feared it would not succeed -- and denied it. "That's the last fear we have, because I personally feel we can mobilize multimillions of people into the boycott," said Falwell.
But James H. Rosenfield, president of the CBS Television Network, recalled yesterday that when fundamentalist religious groups tried getting followers to boycott CBS programs in November 1979, CBS won the crucial ratings "sweeps" month for the first time in several years.
"It's going away," Rosenfield said of the Coalition's movement. "I've said it once, I've said it twice, I've said it a thousand times, it will collapse of its own weight. It's a nonproblem."
CBS issued a statement in which the network said, "There is little point in our critiquing the Coalition's statement of today" and pledged to continue "to provide the best possible information and entertainment to a very diverse American audience." ABC issued a statement that said, "We respect the right of any group to express its opinion about television programming. But we do not believe that any group has the right to appoint itself as the moral censor for all the people."
And an NBC spokesman said, "Our position concerning the Coalition and its tactics has been made abundantly clear and remains unchanged. We have no further comment at this time."
Wildmon and Falwell took note in their remarks of a recent speech by O. B. Butler, chairman of the board at Procter & Gamble Co., in which Butler said his company had withdrawn sponsorship from more than 50 programs in the recently completed TV season because of "gratuitous sex and violence" in them. Wildmon claimed that there were "30 to 40 other companies" who have withdrawn ads from "more programs or as many programs as P&G did," but he would not name any of the companies, and network sources dismissed the claim as untrue.
In addition, Wildmon said that pressure from advertisers and reluctance to sponsor smutty shows had forced the networks to resort to bargain rates to sell some of its programs. In response to that, Rosenfield said from New york, "We've just had the best second quarter in our history. If that's bargain rates. . . ."
In recent weeks, the network counteroffensive against the efforts of the moral reformers included two public opinion polls, one commissioned by NBC and the other by ABC, which indicated the Coalition's strength was less than its leaders claimed and that the American public was not so outraged about sex and violence on TV as was being alleged.
Falwell said yesterday, however, that ABC's own poll showed that 20.5 percent of the U.S population would conceivably support such a boycott. The ABC spokesman said Falwell got the figure from an erroneous newspaper account, that the actual figure was closer to 10 percent, and that there were "all kinds of qualifications" attached to it.
NBC-TV President Robert Mulholland recently told a gathering of critics and reporters in Los Angeles that the Roper poll commissioned by NBC showed that "very few Americans" are critical of programs previously cited by Wildmon and his group as immoral -- shows like "Dallas," "Three's Company" and "Saturday Night Live." Wildmon "claims a much larger following than he actually has," Mulholland said.
Asked yesterday if the network's polls had anything to do with the decision to abandon the boycott, Wildmon said, "Absolutely not one thing at all. I can honestly say I laughed at them. You can manage polls.Polls are meaningless. The only poll that really matters is the marketplace.
"Now -- i'm as honest as I can be about this -- we didn't go to the marketplace not because we didn't think we could be successful. 'Cause we could. A wise man'll change his mind, a fool never will."
When asked by a reporter at the press conference if the boycott had been jettisoned after consulting attorneys, Wildmon declared, "People who do what they believe is right rarely seek legal counsel."
The one company that Wildmon cited by name yesterday was given accolades, not condemnation. It was the Hershey Foods Corp., of which the Hershey Chocolate Co. is a division, because, said Wildmon, Hershey "Made the best effort" to place its ads on wholesome shows.
"We hope those who share our concern will, during the next year, purchase the products of Hershey over those of their competitors to express appreciation for Hershey's efforts," Wildmon said.
A surprised spokesman for Hershey said from the company's Hershey, Pa., headquarters later that Hershey was unaware it was to be cited by the Coalition, that it had "no interaction' with the group, and that it had not altered its standards since 1970, when the company first started advertising on TV.
"Our advertising had nothing to do with pressure from any group," the spokesman said. "Evidently, they are in agreement with us -- rather than we being in agreement with them."