Dorothy Swanson has nothing against Valerie Harper, but she just had to say no.
The call came from Harper's publicity agents on behalf of the one-time star of NBC's "Valerie," who was killed off the show and replaced by Sandy Duncan after a wage dispute and is embroiled in a legal battle with Lorimar-Telepictures over the issue. Lorimar has sued Harper for breach of contract, and she announced yesterday in a sometimes tearful Hollywood press conference that she intends to countersue.
"I feel mugged," she said. "How can they do this? ... I was used."
Swanson is president of the Fairfax-based Viewers for Quality Television and the acknowledged four-star general of letter-writing campaigns, who got her training saving "Cagney and Lacey."
Two weeks ago, Harper's publicists contacted her to ask if she would muster her troops and besiege NBC with missives demanding Harper's return to life on the show, which has been renamed "Valerie's Family." "I do not have a mandate for 'Valerie,' " Swanson decreed. "The issue in this case is money, not quality."
When another Harper publicist repeated the request, Swanson repeated her refusal. And when a Florida radio announcer and Harper fan phoned with the same appeal, Swanson didn't even return the call.
"I have tentative support among some of my members for the show," she says. "It's sort of almost a provisional endorsement. Some of us really like it, but we don't call it quality. That's where we stand on the show. Where we stand on Valerie Harper is nowhere."
And that's that.
"Let's be honest here -- it's flattering," Swanson says of all the pleas for assistance. "What was disconcerting was that they called twice and didn't get the message. I was very clear about it, but I was tactful. When they want something, they don't seem to understand my limitations."
Harper publicist Monique Moss was hoping Swanson could help. "We didn't know what the group was, exactly what the ramifications were," she says.
And, at least according to Swanson, the ramifications are immense. She takes VQT, and just about everything else having to do with TV, very seriously. She gets no pay for her work with the group (she lives off savings and money from a divorce settlement) and speaks of viewers' "passion," of the distinctions between "exceptional entertainment" and "quality," of "tentative support" and a full VQT "endorsement" (so far awarded to only 14 shows) and a dreamed-of "VQT Seal of Approval" that would be recognized throughout the industry.
"It's exciting in some ways," she says. "But it's also an awesome responsibility -- the responsibility of having a show turn to you, or to declare your support to a show and then being committed to do quality work for it, and also the fear of failing. There's going to be one where we're going to fail."
The responsibility extends to avoiding the overlettering of America.
Take the movement to bring back Harper: "When I gave my spiel to these publicists, I not only told them I couldn't help, but advised them not to do it," Swanson says. "Public opinion would not be on the side of Valerie Harper in the middle of a contract dispute.
"I'd question how grass roots this campaign is if it starts in Hollywood," she says, although it is not unusual for desperate producers and publicists to solicit her support, as "Designing Women" backers successfully did last season.
Four years after founding VQT, Swanson says she has a devoted membership of 1,200. She's on a first-name basis with Linda Ellerbee, whose ABC show "Our World" was canceled but may find new life on a New York public broadcasting station thanks to the thousands of letters Swanson initiated, and later this month will hold a VQT convention complete with appearances by Ellerbee and "Designing Women" producers.
Most VQT members are college graduates, Swanson says, and women outnumber men three to one. "We're married, we're single, we're of many occupations," she says. But they are all devoted viewers, who receive a bimonthly newsletter and debate at length which shows to include on the list of true quality.
"A quality show is watched differently than something that is just entertaining," she says. "It's a concentration, it's an attentiveness, it's an involvement that you usually get with a good novel, and you don't find it on television very often."
Swanson's personal list, for example, includes "Cheers," "The Golden Girls," "St. Elsewhere," "Cagney and Lacey," "Designing Women" and "Our World," but after that she can only offer partial approval.
"L.A. Law": "Most of the time."
"Kate and Allie": "Some of the time."
"Newhart": "Some of the time."
"We unendorsed 'Miami Vice' last year," she says. "The members voted it out. They thought the quality slipped."
And when it comes to quality, Swanson and her followers are ruthless. Says the woman who rejected the temptation to take on the "Valerie" cause: "Our integrity's intact."
Washington Post staffer Brenda Caggiano contributed to this report