BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICH. -- Late afternoon. Kids home from school. It's the time of day when Terry Rakolta used to let her three unwind in front of the TV set for an hour. But that was last year, before she had her distressing encounter with "Married ... With Children" and turned crusader for "responsible television," before she went to bed each night perusing studies of the mass media. That was before she fully realized that children were being exposed to ... well, let's take a look at what kids in suburban Detroit see at 4:45 p.m. Rakolta switches on the Quasar. Oprah Winfrey. "You know what they had on yesterday?" Rakolta says. "Girls that had sex -- and babies -- with their fathers." It was after an Oprah-led discussion of sexual addiction that Rakolta's protective instincts were first triggered; her daughter, then 8, worriedly asked her whether it was true that women had sex with dogs. "I hadn't even talked to her yet about sex with people." She clicks the remote control. A syndicated episode of the sitcom "Night Court." Dan, the high-testosterone attorney, is vainly attempting to seduce Christine. Amusing, but "I think it's inappropriate for kids," Rakolta says. "This is adult humor, the networks say it's adult humor, but local stations are showing it in the afternoon." "Inside Edition." The anchor says that tomorrow, viewers will learn about the healthy teenager who developed a sore throat and died within days, allegedly prompting his father to threaten the boy's physician. "Kids see this day in and day out," is Rakolta's comment. "Death, death, death." Had Terry Rakolta known that she was going to become notorious, she would have done things differently. Last winter, when it occurred to her to grow furious about television, she would have picked on a show that offended her because of its violence. Instead, she focused on the bawdiness of "Married ... With Children," which led to her being labeled a humorless prude. She would have been sophisticated about the way broadcasting and advertising work, been ready with all the facts and figures she's now scrambling to amass. But how could she know? She was the wife of a wealthy contractor, a mother who supervised her children's homework nightly, a golfer and grower of roses, a charity woman who tried to avoid public speaking. A quite likable woman, Rakolta was not a humorless prude, but she knew rather little about the issues on which she was suddenly expected to comment. Nothing in her theretofore private life had prepared her to be extolled on the Senate floor by Jesse Helms or branded "Mrs. Khomeini of Bloomfield Hills" in the pages of her local newspaper. "People thought I was an activist," she says. "I was just a concerned viewer." But her incendiary letter-writing campaign to sponsors of the show that offended her, and their deferential response, followed by her appearance on the front page of the New York Times and her chats with Larry King, Ted Koppel et al. have given Rakolta a national soapbox. As a new TV season unfurls, she is still trying to figure out just what to do with it. Rakolta now has an official title: She is president of Americans for Responsible Television (ART), the fledgling organization she announced at a press conference last May, intended to be a watchdog group based in Washington. She's had titles before, but more along the lines of co-chairwoman of the local Grand Prix Ball. She looks the young clubwoman in her carefully applied makeup and stylish suit; maybe it's the Alice in Wonderland hair that makes her look younger than her age, which is 45. Or maybe it's having money. Her husband, John Rakolta Jr., presides over his family's construction firm, the state's largest, with contracts worth nearly $500 million last year, according to one trade journal. They live in an elegant Tudor home that she will no longer allow reporters into because of the threats she has received; instead, she borrows her sister's home or business office. She dislikes dwelling upon matters of socioeconomics, fearing stories that portray "a wealthy woman out there trying to tell you what you can see and hear." In fact Rakolta spends a good deal of her time trying to explain what she is not. She's not politically motivated and has never participated in a political campaign, she says, though her other sister is married to former Michigan governor George Romney's son and the Rakolta and Romney clans are close. (The Federal Election Commission, however, records a $1,000 contribution to George Bush's primary campaign in Terry Rakolta's name.) She's a Mormon but "not overly religious," an often-overlooked distinction between Rakolta and other TV castigators like the Rev. Donald Wildmon. She's not a Puritan either, she insists; she watches "L.A. Law" and appreciated "Lonesome Dove" and doesn't object to penis jokes on "Saturday Night Live" because it's on late at night. She goes to 60 movies a year including, recently, Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." She's discovered, watching too many scenes of actresses wearing garter belts, that she's a feminist. "She's not a rigid, uptight, conservative person," says a friend of 20 years, Suzy Farbman. "In private conversation, four-letter words fly freely from her mouth." What Rakolta is, Farbman says, is "somewhat of a mother lion." This is a parent who, worrying about her college-student daughter from her second marriage, falls asleep in the girl's bed to ensure a chance to check her breath when she comes home late. (Rakolta has had three marriages, the first one lasting only a few months post-college, this one entering its 15th year.) She's banned MTV for her younger children and jettisoned HBO after it showed the movie "Porky's" at 8 p.m. "There's a lot of things I see and read that I wouldn't want my 8-, 10- and 11-year-old to see," she explains. Last January, "Married ... With Children" was added to that list. It was a Sunday night and Rakolta, checking the listings for something she and her kids could watch together while she puffed along on her exercise treadmill, thought the Fox network comedy sounded appropriate. Deciding she was wrong early in the episode, Rakolta sent her kids from the room but kept watching, unnerved. "It was about a man who wanted a discontinued bra as a birthday present for his wife," which involved visiting a "Frederick's of Hollywood-type store," she recalls. "They had a man watching porno movies walking around, bent over, with an erection. They showed a male stripper going into the wife's home and stripping to a G-string. They had a man in the store wearing a garter belt and nylons. A young woman with her back to the camera removed her bra and asked these two complete strangers, do you think my boyfriend will like the way I look?" In later conversations, what emerges from her recollection is a sense of having lost control. "It's my living room," she remembers thinking. "It's 8:30 Sunday evening. How come this is coming into my living room?" The next day Rakolta fired off 20 outraged letters to the show's advertisers accusing them of "pandering to and supporting ... soft pornography" and threatening boycotts of their products. She was very thorough, writing not only to chief executives but sending copies to corporate directors, marketing heads and ad agency honchos, by name. She continued watching "Married ... With Children" for several Sundays, blasting more advertisers by mail. Fox Broadcasting and Columbia Pictures (which produces the sitcom) tried to head off the damage with letters and a phone call from Fox's president, Jamie Kellner, explaining that the show was deliberately parodic, controversial television that had probably gone too far that particular evening, and urging her to exercise her right to turn off the set if she was further offended. But by that time, Rakolta was tasting blood. The president of Coca-Cola sent an abject apology saying he was "corporately, professionally, and personally embarrassed." Of the responses flowing in from corporate America, many employed bland assurances about "reassessing" and having "active dialogue"; several, however, seemed to agree with her. "Not one stood by the end product," she says. Emboldened, Rakolta called the advertising writer of the New York Times. Her one-woman offensive made the front page in a March 2 article subheadlined "A Mother Is Heard... ." That night, the woman who hated speaking at charity luncheons made her small-screen debut -- on "Nightline." Now that the dust has cleared, the effect of Rakolta's mail campaign on Fox's hit show, then as now its highest-rated, may have been exaggerated. Only Tambrands Inc. and Dorsey Laboratories actually withdrew commercials they had planned to run, and their participation was minimal anyway, amounting to a loss of one 30-second and one 15-second spot for the season. Several of the sponsors -- American Home Food, Kimberly-Clark Corp. -- that said they'd no longer buy time on "Married ... With Children" had reached that decision before Rakolta's letters arrived. Mitsubishi, which last year said it had no future plans to advertise on the show, is back this year with two 30-second spots. In any event, the show's ad time is fully sold and its ratings have probably been boosted by the media attention Rakolta generated. "She made her points about the show, got a national platform, reaped whatever benefits she derived from that," says Fox spokesman Brad Turell. "And the show's thriving and doing bigger numbers than it's ever done." Rakolta's platform, however, didn't go away. She did talk shows, gave interviews, was the butt of comedians' jokes and received 1,600 unsolicited letters, most complimentary. In the wake of Tipper Gore, the Rev. Donald Wildmon and the furor over the film "The Last Temptation of Christ," Rakolta seemed part of an intensifying cultural backlash. She was photogenic and articulate and "she was tapping into something," points out Arthur Kropp, president of People for the American Way, which concerns itself with freedom of expression. "How many people are totally happy with what's on television?" (A Gallup survey of parents, conducted weeks before Rakolta's letter-writing, found 25 percent frequently uncomfortable about something -- sex, then violence, were the prime offenders -- in shows they watched with their children; 33 percent were occasionally uncomfortable.) What to do with her instant celebrity, though? "Because the issue is so important, if you have an opportunity to make a difference and people are listening, you have an obligation," Rakolta thought, deciding to continue her assault. At the same time, she says now, "I didn't know anything. I found out a lot of things from reporters. It was kind of what you call a fluid situation." She hadn't planned to start a group, Rakolta says. But joining an existing organization concerned about television programming proved tricky. She had one brief conversation with Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television (ACT), who did not welcome her participation. "I do not agree with her goals," Charren says. "ACT doesn't believe that closing down options for viewers of any age is the way to proceed. We are pro-choice in programming." But Rakolta, who'd twice voted for Ronald Reagan, didn't feel at ease among "the far right conservatives" either, finding them a rigid lot. "I have found out through this process that I am a moderate," she announces. By the time she booked a room at the National Press Club last spring, she had learned how to sound moderate too. Americans for Responsible Television, she announced to the press, would be neither liberal nor conservative, would not call for censorship, would support "private, voluntary efforts by the advertisers and the networks to raise the standards... ." She had chosen as ART's first goal the adoption of a "family viewing" period from 7 to 9 p.m., when networks would air programming suitable for children. She also wanted to meet with the CEOs of the 100 top network advertisers, "to inform them of the impact and power of television on our society." ART, to which in ensuing months 2,600 people mailed their $15 contributions, would become a coalition of groups whose collective membership might, in a year, reach a million people, Rakolta predicted. It would in January open a Washington office, which she would visit twice a month. Direct-mail firms were already vying to undertake her fund-raising. It has become her mantra: "To be effective you have to be moderate." Boycotts will be "a very last resort" for ART, and anyway, "I'd prefer to call it selective patronage." It seems to her so sensible an approach -- Rakolta and her backers having boardroom chats, after which everyone voluntarily decides to change the face of network television and no one gets mad -- that she appears genuinely hurt that people still condemn her as a censor. She's not advocating government action, is she? That censorship can be economic as well as governmental is not a notion she entertains. Nor will she buy the turn-off-your-set-if-you-don't-like-it approach. Kids won't push the off button, she thinks, and working parents can't always police kids' choices, especially when homes have several sets. More fundamentally, she sees turning off as an abdication of responsibility. "Who's going to control the public airwaves is really what's going on here," she correctly assesses. "Mass America? The private, money-oriented producers? The minority of people who have pay-cable tastes?" Rakolta's answer is "the public," but who is that, exactly? The far right that she doesn't like? The left that doesn't like her? The marketing veeps of the Fortune 500? Rakolta herself? "It's tightrope walking," says George Gerbner, the longtime University of Pennsylvania television researcher, who's been informally advising Rakolta as she tries to launch her group. "We'll have to see just how agile she is." Emotions run hot in this arena. Kropp of People for the American Way, who expected Rakolta to be "another right-wing yahoo" but has come to know and like her, sees her as sincere but naive. "Terry's not a political person," he says. "She's going to have real problems with her organization because this is a political issue." Kropp, for example, is among those who believe that expressing frustration with television is healthy, but he worries about "what people will do with it. Do we really want Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble and General Motors to be the thought police; everything has to be approved by them before the networks will touch anything?" But Rakolta's not seen as a natural ally on the other end of the spectrum, either. Take Christian Leaders for Responsible Television, now in the third month of a boycott (aided by $2 million from the American Family Association, Donald Wildmon's organization) of Mennen and Clorox because those companies sponsor shows it deems distasteful, such as "Knots Landing" and "The Equalizer." CLeaR-TV leader Billy Melvin welcomes Rakolta to the battle -- "I wish we had 100 Terrys out there, or 1,000." But when it comes to the family viewing period, "if by that you mean show all the raunchy stuff at other times, we couldn't agree with that," Melvin says. The family viewing period is an old idea. The National Association of Broadcasters adopted it as part of its Television Code in 1975. But a court challenge by the Writers Guild of America, West, on First Amendment and antitrust grounds, wended its way through several legal stages; meanwhile, the family period and the entire Television Code were suspended as the result of a separate antitrust action. The Writers Guild would gladly undertake that battle again, says its president, George Kirgo. How can ART pick its way through this minefield, stirring people up enough to attract their money and attention while avoiding enemies and differentiating itself from the groups already focusing on television? Rakolta wants a respected nonpartisan advisory board to help, and in the first ART newsletter announced its first two members: George Romney, her sister's father-in-law, and Gerbner, dean emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications and a veteran researcher on the effects of television. But Gerbner, whom Rakolta calls her mentor, cautions, "We're handling this on a very informal basis. ... I have to consider what this organization is going to be like, what direction it's heading in, how balanced it's going to be, before I accept." She also hopes to put together a coalition of groups instead of adding members person by person, and describes the Michigan Kiwanis organization (which she addressed at a convention) and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) as early participants, allowing her to speak for and mobilize tens of thousands of people. But Scott Thomson, executive director of the NASSP, says, "I think perhaps she has overstated our position." Thomson did send Rakolta a commendatory letter, but says "we're not a partner of her organization. We have no definite plans. There's been no meeting with her." As for the direct-mail effort to fund the Washington office, the executive director's salary and all the rest, Rakolta was about to sign up with Ann Stone and Associates of Alexandria. A former vice president for Richard Viguerie, the Reaganaut direct-mail whiz, Stone has represented the likes of the Fund for a Conservative Majority and the Nicaraguan contras. And Rakolta's advisers were as worried about the economic repercussions as the political ones: Unsuccessful mailings could have left the newborn organization deep in debt. Fund-raising has been delayed, therefore, while Rakolta meets with a direct-mail consultant; the Washington office (assuming a sufficiently lucrative response) will probably not materialize until at least next spring. Rakolta is untroubled by such snags, certain that her group will succeed. But older hands observe that parlaying personal notoriety into media policy influence will be difficult. "There's a rate of diminishing returns" to her celebrity, Gerbner says. "She still has a certain amount of visibility" but now faces "the much more painstaking and difficult task of organization-building." She's still learning the ropes. She's acquired phrases like "off the record." She's mastered such esoterica as the difference between "tonnage" and "environment" advertising. She decided against hiring a video coach when the price quoted was $1,600 for two hours' instruction. She'd already done "Donahue"; who needed a coach now? She's committed for the duration, Rakolta says. "I hope we last a long time, 20, 25, 30 years." For how can she go back to her committee meetings and her rosebushes now? Everything is different. "I think she's found she likes being in the public eye," says her friend Suzy Farbman. "She gets a kick out of telling me this one or that one is calling her." A few hundred indignant letters ago, "she was basically living a life where her husband was the one who was front and center," Farbman adds. "He pretty much called the shots. Now she's the star of the family." It has been a strange odyssey of self-discovery mixed with astonishment, the ripples still spreading via the media's global reach. Rakolta has been interviewed by the BBC; her story's made news in Switzerland and Germany. Traveling abroad last month, wearing a badge with her name, Rakolta found herself recognized in Istanbul. "If someone had said to me, 'Write a few letters and you'll be all over the world,' I'd have said, 'You're nuts,' " she marvels. "And then when you see the process... ."