From the grass roots: reaction against TV


It was Education Day for the women of Hadassah at Congregation Beth El in Baltimore. And the topic was TV.

"I'm just a regular viewer, but I'll tell you what's new," said Selma Pollack, one of 150 at the conference. "In the past, if I found a show objectionable, I just turned it off -- I didn't watch. But now, I watch.

"I watch until I have the names of every single sponsor. And then I write to those sponsors, telling them I won't be buying their products anymore, because of their involvement with the show.

"And, then, I get 50 of my friends to write too."

Television reform. Everybody's doing it -- or at least trying to.

From grass-roots attempts of regular viewers such as Ms. Pollack, to highly publicized efforts such as those of Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, people are coming together as never before to try and change television.

There was stepped-up activity during 1993, with new TV reform groups springing up almost every month. And experts say the movement is going to grow in 1994.

* In May, a coalition of more than a dozen groups came together to press the Federal Communications Commission to enforce the Children's Television Act of 1991.

Member groups range from the Consumer Federation of America to the Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV -- a statewide effort to monitor TV stations as well as educate parents about the effects of TV violence on children.

* In June, the Citizens' Task Force on TV Violence was formed, representing some 400,000 members. Participating groups include the National Parent-Teacher Association, the American Medical Association, the National Council of Churches, the National Education Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

* Last month, the National Coalition for Non-Violent Programming convened at the Johnson Foundation Wingspread Conference Center in Wisconsin. This alliance represents 500,000 women. Its groups include the Association of Junior Leagues, B'nai B'rith Women and the National Association of Minority Women in Business.

These are mainstream organizations, and they know how to get their messages heard.

The Citizens' Task Force on TV Violence recently recommended to Attorney General Janet Reno that violent programs be banned from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

(In October, Ms. Reno had told the TV industry to clean up its act on violence or the government would take action.)

The National Political Caucus of Black Women also recently launched a crusade against "gangsta rap" lyrics and the music videos that feature them on cable channels such as MTV and BET. Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun promised to hold hearings on the issue.

Currently nine different proposals are before Congress on the issue of TV violence.

"There are all kinds of coalitions of citizens making themselves heard, and it's more diverse than ever," said George Gerbner, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer in research on media violence.

Kathryn C. Montgomery agreed. "Efforts to reform television are not new," she said. "But these efforts -- if you include anti-violence, children's TV and those of us concerned with the infrastructure of the information superhighway -- are more broad-based than anything that's come before."

Ms. Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education, a non-profit consumer organization in Washington, is author of "Target: Prime Time," a history of TV reform movements in America.

That history started in 1951 when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People denounced "Amos 'n' Andy" for depicting "Negroes in a stereotyped and derogatory manner." The NAACP tried a letter-writing campaign, lawsuit and advertiser boycott to get CBS to take the show off the air -- to no avail.

The closest parallel to today's reform effort came in the mid-1970s with an anti-violence campaign that included some of the same groups currently involved, such as the AMA and PTA. That campaign resulted in the cancellation of several violent network TV shows, such as "Streets of San Francisco," by the 1977 TV season.

"But TV reform was wiped out in the 1980s, and we had to start all over in recent years," said Jeffrey A. Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education.

Mr. Chester sees a direct connection between the growth of the center, which he and Ms. Montgomery founded, and the overall reform movement. "We started in a basement of a house, and in two short years went from an annual budget of $15,000 to $350,000 today."

He said the center has regained the support of organizations such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation, which had not been funding media policy in recent years. This has helped the movement grow.

Typical of such funding is the $45,000 grant recently announced by Baltimore's Abell Foundation. The grant goes to the Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV to promote quality TV for children and educate parents about the effects of TV violence.

Responsible for rekindling the fires of TV reform, experts say, are factors both on and off the screen.

Ms. Montgomery says the anti-violence movement is in part a "reflection of peoples' general unhappiness with a decline in the quality of TV."

Mr. Gerbner see a link between growing concern about real-life violence in the streets and the rising chorus of calls for limiting violence on TV. He says Washington politicians playing to the real-life concerns have "catapulted the issue of TV violence to the forefront."

Mr. Chester says some of the spark comes from consumers upset with cable TV prices and cable company indifference to their complaints.

Yet another set of explanations for the rising tide behind TV reform involves baby boomer parents.

When baby boomers start looking at TV through their children's eyes, programs that didn't bother them before start bothering them a lot. They want their children protected.

"That's how I started in the movement," said Terry Rakolta, a mother of four who started Americans for Responsible Television from her suburban Detroit home in 1989. "I sat down with my children and saw 'Married . . . With Children' on Fox through their eyes."

Her group now has 150,000 members. In one three-month period this spring and summer, membership jumped by 40,000, Ms. Rakolta says.

Reformers themselves do not all adhere to one approach to achieving their goal. On the issue of censorship, for example, the spectrum runs from the National Alliance for Non-Violent Programming, which opposes censorship, to Ms. Rakolta's group, which says censorship is fine if that's what it takes to clean up the airwaves.

"We now live in an electronic media environment," said Mr. Chester. "This is television as a necessity, a utility and an addiction.

"More and more people are concerned about its impact. And it's about to become even more powerful as television is merged with the computer, the VCR and the telephone.

"We're not talking about just entertainment programming, we're talking about the central nervous system of our democracy in the 21st century. And citizens are trying to stake out a piece of this highway for our public concerns."


* National Coalition on Television Violence. P.O. Box 2157, Champaign, IL 61825.

* Americans for Responsible Television. P.O. Box 627, Bloomfield Hills, MI 48303.

* Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV. 300 Cathedral St., Suite 500, Baltimore, MD 21201.

* The National Alliance for Non-Violent Programming. 1846 Banking St., Greensboro, N.C. 27108.

* The Cultural Environment Coalition. c/o Dr. George Gerbner, The Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, 3620 Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104.

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