ALMOST DAILY -- weekly, at least -- one broadcasting industry executive or another makes a speech attacking the Moral Majority and its Coalition for Better Television, the organized campaign to detoxify, disinfect and deodorize the airwaves. The speeches tend to be aimed at those who already agree with the people making them.
But there is another front in this ongoing clash of the titans, and that's the home front -- the great American television set in the great American living room. Some of this warfare is of the guerrilla variety, some of it undercover, some of it right out there in the open, most but not all of it anti-Coalition. Hollywood's so-called "creative community" is putting anti-Coalition sentiment (let's not call it "propaganda") into some of its allegedly rollicking entertainment.
So that while Americans are getting rollicked, they are also, to some extent, getting a sponge bath -- an appeal, subtle or obvious, for their hearts and minds.
One of the first signs of this was on the premiere of the short-lived comedy series "Park Place" on CBS. The show was of the "Barney Miller" ensemble comedy type. One of the zany characters was a quaint, prissy, Bible-toting older woman clearly meant to be the tiresome office kook.
When someone said "good morning" to her in the first episode, she responded with, "It is a good morning, because Jesus loves you." This was greeted with a big roar of laughter from the chuckle machine. Usually, prudes and bluenoses depicted in TV comedies never use the words or symbols of actual religious denominations, or revered names like "Jesus." But the rule was changed for "Park Place," perhaps as part of a subtle effort to discredit the Christian Far Right and the Moral Majority that currently seems its most vocal faction.
The name of "Jesus" was also invoked on the two-hour movie premiere of ABC's comedy-adventure series "The Greatest American Hero." The villain of the piece was a right-wing billionaire plotting a military takeover of the country; his minions were spiritual descendants of the Brown Shirts who, just before murdering a black man in the opening scene, told him, "Jesus loves you."
To discern a conspiracy here would be unfashionably drastic. Besides, Hollywood writers and producers can organize for strikes, but not much else. But since they do feel threatened by the Coalition it's likely we will see increasing references -- sly or obvious -- to Moral Majorettes and their constituencies on the air.
One program chose to deal with the matter openly, though perhaps not very dispassionately. The season's 22nd and last episode of the CBS sitcom "WKRP in Cincinnati" was about a right-wing organization called Clean Up Radio Broadcasting that threatened the station with loss of advertising revenue if it didn't ban the records offensive to the group, much as network advertisers have been threatened with a boycott by the Coalition. A spokesman for MTM Productions in Hollywood says mail to the network ran 70-30 in favor of the show after it aired.
Television's human barometer on issues like this one is, of course, the seemingly indispensable Johnny Carson, who now makes jokes about the Moral Majority a regular part of his monologue. To Carson probably goes the credit (or blame, depending on your point of view) for turning Florida's little-ray-of-sunshine Anita Bryant into a laughing stock when she launched her own little crusade a few years ago. Carson's bull's-eye Anita jokes helped give her the image of being at least a misguided zealot, at worst a pious crackpot.
Carson and his writers now may do the same for Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority chieftain who has made himself a formidable political presence -- and thus, a legitimate target for barbs. A recent Carson jest had Falwell taking aim at the Lawrence Welk show "because he found out the dancers dip." The ammunition is humor, and not particularly malicious humor; it helps shape public opinion, though, more readily than a hundred speeches by a hundred network executives could.
There is pro-Coalition material on the air as well; it would be a mistake to imagine that the massed forces of television have formed a monolithic alliance. Ted Turner's Cable News Network (CNN) offered a series of news reports on the moral war over television, then spliced them into a one-hour special, "Television: The Moral Battleground," which, in addition to its CNN exposure, was shown at least twice by Turner's Atlanta-based SuperStation, WTBS.
Ostensibly objective, the program included such touches as intercutting between a CBS Network executive saying the network's programs were free of filth and a scene from a CBS soap opera in which a sexy woman propositions a muscle-bound youth who comes to her door selling chest developers. The implication was that CBS was saying one thing and showing another on the air.
The credibility of the report wasn't helped by the fact that owner Turner has been making even more than his usual publicity-seeking rounds lately, and a favorite theme has been his charge that the networks are polluting the nation with their saucy ooh-la-la. Turner has made it clear in the past that disparaging the television establishment is one of his strategies in building his own broadcasting empire; on the syndicated "Phil Donahue" show, he promised viewers that he would start producing good, clean comedy shows like "Leave It to Beaver," a threat that makes even today's smuttiest sitcoms look good.
If the whole issue is going to degenerate into a giggly donnybrook, it may be too bad, since once upon a time there were legitimate points to be made about increasingly racy and salacious TV programs and their effect on the nation's mental health. The word on next fall's new shows is that advertisers, worried about the mere threats of boycott, have pestered the networks for cleaner shows, as clean as a Comet-scrubbed sink, so maybe the Coalition could declare its good work done and fold up its tents.
What appears to have happened is that war against television has become an industry unto itself; after all, some people said television was poisoning America's mind when all it showed was "Mr. Peepers" and "Lux Video Theater." The Coalition may be guilty of trying to capitalize on the hate side of America's love-hate relationship with television merely as a means to construct a vast political base, a righteous class whose members will be continually called upon to perform at the ballot box or the mailbox as if signaled by a Pavlovian bell.
If so, any legitimate issues about TV's effect on the nation's psyche and the common good will go up in the smoke of rhetoric and rattled umbrage.
Paul L Klein, the former NBC executive who recently produced "People vs. Jean Harris" and was interviewed for the CNN report, says the anti-smut forces have turned their crusade into "a pretty lucrative business" run by crackerjack "marketing guys" for whom the peddling of hysteria about TV sex is just a matter of selling the yokels another product. "You can't believe how much money they're taking in," Klein says.
Klein is no champion of sex on TV. He coined the term "kiddie porn" to describe such adolescent-minded soft-core teases as "Charlie's Angels". Klein also invented the term "jiggling" to describe what the Angels spend most of their air time doing, all in the interest of entertaining the troops at home.
But Klein is not enamored of the tactics now being used to combat such scourges. His summation of the Moral Majority campaign does put it neatly into a nutshell, which is perhaps where it belongs. Most of the group's support, Klein claims, comes from old people, and "the older you are," Paul Klein says, "the more likely you are to hate what young people do."