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VQT continues advocacy for TV to be at its best

Sunday, October 01, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

FAIRFAX STATION, Va. -- Among the many slings and arrows viewers aim at television, one complaint stands out: "Whatever I like gets canceled! "

 
   
VQT at a glance


Organization: Viewers for Quality Television.

Cost: Minimum donation of $10 for membership and one-year subscription to The Viewer newsletter, published about 10 times annually. It includes members' comments on TV shows and opportunities to vote on group support of programs.

Address: VQT, Box 195, Fairfax Station, VA 22039.

E-mail: info@vqt.org.

Web site: www.vqt.org.


The quality shows

VQT offers two categories of support. Fully endorsed programs are deemed to be of high quality by at least 60 percent of those who return ballots. Shows receiving qualified support "consists of those series with quality potential," according to VQT's Web site.

Full endorsement

"Ally McBeal," "Any Day Now," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Frasier," "Law & Order," "NYPD Blue," "Once and Again," "The Sopranos," "The Practice," "Sports Night," "The West Wing," "Will & Grace," "The X-Files."

Qualified support

"7th Heaven," "Dharma & Greg," "ER," "Felicity," "Freaks and Geeks," "Friends," "JAG," "Judging Amy," "Law & Order: SVU," "Malcolm in the Middle," "Now and Again," "Oz," "The Pretender," "The Simpsons," "Star Trek: Voyager," "Third Watch."



Book Review

"The Story Of Viewers For Quality Television: From Grassroots To Prime Time"

 
 

Dorothy Swanson knows those plaintive cries well. For almost 16 years she's fought an uphill battle, urging quick-draw network executives to keep high-quality shows on the air. Sometimes it worked ("Designing Women"); more often it didn't ("Nothing Sacred," "EZ Streets," "Frank's Place," etc.).

In 1984, Swanson founded and continues to lead Viewers for Quality Television, a group dedicated to educating viewers about ways to advocate for quality television.

VQT is not a protest group; it doesn't encourage boycotts. Its list of supported series includes family-friendly "7th Heaven" and the decidedly adult HBO drama "The Sopranos."

VQT, whose membership numbers 1,500 (down from a high of 5,000 during the campaigns to save "Designing Women" and "Our World"), gives viewers a chance to make their thoughts on TV known. They offer insightful commentary in a newsletter called The Viewer, participate in voting to determine which programs deserve endorsement and give their opinions on new series in a new season poll every fall. The group also hands out annual "Q" awards.

Preston Beckman, Fox executive vice president of strategic program planning, said VQT is on the radar of network executives.

"The longer something's around, the more legitimacy it has," Beckman said. "They're a legitimate organization. It's valuable to be reminded it's more than just the ratings -- it's about putting on programming that in some way adds to the culture. I don't dismiss them at all.

"On the other hand, there are several shows they've endorsed that haven't succeeded," Beckman said, "so I think nirvana for anybody in our business is to get the "Frasier," the "Malcolm in the Middle," the "Everybody Loves Raymond," something that's recognized by enough people to make it a hit show."

Though the VQT membership may be small in number, their voices are heard. Television executives and producers receive copies of the newsletter. Results of VQT polling are published in the Hollywood trade papers and some networks use VQT's endorsements in on-air promos. NBC's entire branding campaign -- "The Quality Shows" -- seems a direct influence of VQT's push for quality.

CBS President Leslie Moonves said VQT doesn't make much of a difference in the ratings, but he respects their efforts.

"They're a very dedicated group of people, and Dorothy Swanson is a terrific individual who really cares about what we put on the air," Moonves said. "It's not like some of these bogus special interest groups that have a political cause to back up, so I still think they're by far the most significant."

Moonves said VQT has influence because of exposure the group has gotten in the press over the years and because of the "Q" awards.

"People in the industry read the newsletter," Moonves said. "You want to be on that list. It's a prestigious thing to get."

Swanson, 60, has written a book about the organization, "The Story of Viewers for Quality Television: From Grassroots to Prime Time" ($28.95, Syracuse University Press). In it she details her own journey, from a suburban housewife fan of "Cagney & Lacey" to a woman big-shot Hollywood producers call to ask for support for their series.

Just because they seek support, doesn't mean they'll get it. The past doesn't dictate VQT's future support, and as Swanson details in her book, that's cost her some friends in the industry. But she wants VQT to remain pure in its mission of supporting quality television.

That can be an elusive goal. One person's quality (say, "NYPD Blue") is another person's example of moral decay due to the rampant use of profanity. VQT defines a quality program as one that "enriches, challenges, involves and often confronts. ... It rises above entertainment. It dares to take risks."

About a dozen viewers from Western Pennsylvania are VQT members, most of them involved in the group for 10 years or more. Leo Solari of Butler can't remember how long he's been part of VQT, but estimates it's been almost since the organization formed.

"There were a lot of shows in the past that I liked, and you'd watch them for a few weeks and then they'd take them off," Solari said. "It seemed like a way to at least make your opinions be heard."

VQT members contacted for this story said reading comments in the group's newsletter is what they enjoy most.

"I do get a kick out of seeing what other people think and why," said Renee Levin of Pittsburgh. "Sometimes it does tempt me into watching something I hadn't watched. If they like it, I probably would too, because I think they're pretty smart, savvy people."

April Kost of Wilkins joined VQT during the group's successful campaign to save "Designing Women" in its first season.

"It was never an organization about saving one show," Kost said. "There have always been things worth advocating. When people say there isn't any good television, that's not true. VQT is a focus point to support it."

Kost has attended 10 of the group's Conferences on Quality Television held in Los Angeles. She would have been there this year, but the conference was canceled because Swanson is recovering from breast cancer.

"I went to one just to see what it was like," Kost said. "I really enjoyed the panel discussions. I've met and heard lots of people speak -- producers, writers and the creative people out there. Sometimes they're more interesting and articulate than the big stars."

Celebrities attend too, to pick up "Q" awards or to participate in panels on the state of TV. Kost has met Dennis Franz, Fred Savage and Kelsey Grammer.

VQT, a nonprofit organization, survives only on the contributions of members, usually operating on a budget of less than $80,000 per year. Swanson is the only paid employee, and she's deferred her salary in recent years to keep the group afloat.

To help raise money, VQT auctions off memorabilia donated by television producers (scripts, hats, T-shirts, etc.), but some producers also donate "a day on the set" for auction. Kost has been the highest bidder on set visits to "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "Law & Order."

"I was an extra on 'Law & Order,' a juror," Kost said.

Although producers make nonmonetary donations to VQT, Swanson said there's no quid pro quo. Other than the founder's award, the VQT membership decides which series to endorse and award.

"A lot of charities ask the industry for items to auction," Swanson said. "We've just become one more of those that does, the difference being we turn around and advocate television."

Swanson said producers don't contribute money, but they can look around the office and see a coffee mug with the "Homicide: Life on the Streets" logo on it and donate that. "It's just always enabled us then to raise enough money to keep going. Right or wrong, compromised or not, it really has never affected a decision I've made. There may be some gratitude involved, but I don't think there is a pre-purchase of support. We have no money, so our integrity is intact."

Set visits and meeting actors are an enjoyable byproduct of VQT membership, but it's not the main reason for the group's existence, Kost said. "It shows you how to go about trying to advocate for the shows you believe in. It tells you this is where you should write to if you want to make your opinions known."

Viewers voice their opinions to more than just the networks. Sometimes the VQT membership informs Swanson, too. Sitting in her living room, Swanson jumps up to show a visiting reporter a package of tapes sent to her by VQT members.

The package contains episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," a series that mixes two elements that aren't usually Swanson's favorites: teens and sci-fi. Two persistent members convinced her to take a look.

"The way members were writing about 'Buffy,' I knew there had to be something special there," Swanson said.

Ultimately, Swanson gave "Buffy" this year's founder's award, designated for programs ignored by other TV awards ("Will & Grace" won last year after it was snubbed by the Emmys).

The living room walls of Swanson's suburban Washington, D.C., home are covered with framed photos of Swanson with actors and producers at past VQT conferences. It's in this room Swanson watches most of the programs VQT endorses, and sometimes she gets a kick out of seeing those endorsements in network promotional spots.

But the phone rings less frequently these days at Swanson's home, which doubles as VQT headquarters. Journalists, who used to call for a quote whenever they needed an expert sound bite, aren't as interested, perhaps because VQT is no longer new or because of the growing number of Internet-based save-a-show campaigns. There's also this attitude: "What have they saved lately?"

"Nobody is going to save a show after it's been canceled," Swanson said. "Our advocacy begins when a quality show first airs. We let everyone know what the shows are that you should get on the bandwagon about. I've always said we're not about saving shows after they've been canceled. It just can't be done, it isn't going to be done. I've tried to educate them that this is when you have to get behind a show, and I think they do, and I think they have learned."

Swanson urged viewers to start writing to networks to show support for new quality programs this month. (Network addresses can be found in today's TV Week on Page 40.)

In a way, VQT is a victim of its own success and of the changing times. In 1984 quality dramas like "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere" fought to stay on the air. Today, most dramas in the Top 10 Nielsen ratings are quality shows VQT supports, and they're in no danger of cancellation.

In 2000, there's also the question of who at the networks VQT should address its concerns to.

"As the networks grow more monolithic, they're less about entertainment and more about the bottom line," Swanson said. "There's the difficulty of communicating with whoever it is at the network level. Who has the authority to kill a show or keep it on the air?"

Swanson said during the tenure of Jamie Tarses as entertainment president of ABC, it wasn't clear she was making all programming decisions.

"We learned later that Michael Eisner did the schedule for her -- scratched off this, scratched off that," Swanson said. "So who we are fighting has become less clear."

When VQT began there was no Internet, no easy way for fans of quality television to keep in touch. Coverage of the entertainment industry was far more sporadic in newspapers, and Entertainment Weekly didn't exist. VQT filled that void and taught fans how to lobby to save shows. Now TV fans are congregating on the Internet.

"Many times I've gone onto Web sites where fans have banded together and they say do this, do that. That's all very familiar to me," Swanson said. "It's been handed down like an old wives' tale, and it has been sifted through and picked up on and that's fine because in the end we have educated. That was our job. They know what to do."

Maybe too well. Swanson was appalled to learn of a campaign to save the CBS sitcom "The Nanny" a year ago.

"The one part of it they didn't get was you don't do it for every show. That diminishes, it dilutes," Swanson said. "There was a time when campaigning meant something. It's become so commonplace now it's almost expected, so it's a different era."

Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, said Internet constituencies have little impact on network decision-making.

"Now with e-mail, we're besieged every day," Grushow said. "Every creator's got a brother who's got an uncle who's got a friend, and the e-mail just keeps coming. There is a way in which it does tend to cancel itself out."

Swanson suggests a written letter sent through the mail will have more impact than e-mail.

With these changes in technology, VQT has changed, too. Swanson chooses her battles carefully, relying on a ground swell of support from VQT members before mounting a full campaign. It hasn't happened since ABC's "Nothing Sacred" during the 1997-1998 season.

Swanson still believes a campaign to save a TV show won't work without arousing the interest of the media. Critics were upset with the treatment of "Brooklyn Bridge" and "I'll Fly Away;" VQT members were angry, too. Together the two constituencies eked out second seasons of both.

"What you have now, though, is fans trying to do that over shows journalists aren't particularly outraged about, so the response is either nil or lukewarm," Swanson said.

The Internet also leads to competition among viewers, something Swanson wants to avoid.

"If you really follow the threads closely, there are some viewer campaigns on the Internet where people become competitive with each other for who gets through to the producer," Swanson said. "It's not about which group advocates the most shows. It's not about which group or which gaggle of fans can get the attention of the producer first or of the most producers. I start to feel it's a competition then for attention, and I'll let it end before I'll do that."

That's not to say Swanson plans to shutter VQT soon, but she's realistic about how long the group will continue to exist.

"Everything runs its course," she said. "I'm going to have to recognize when we have done our job, when we have educated viewers on how to fight for what they're going to see on television. I won't just hang on for the sake of it. We still have a lot of people in VQT who believe in what we're doing, so it will be a decision I haven't come to yet."

Until then, Swanson said VQT members will continue to make their support known.

"Our viewer survey results and new season opinion poll still get into the trades and the L.A. Times," Swanson said. "There isn't any other group that can do that. So there is some kind of life in the old group yet, and somebody is recognizing that our opinion should be considered."

The quality shows

VQT offers two categories of support. Fully endorsed programs are deemed to be of high quality by at least 60 percent of those who return ballots. Shows receiving qualified support "consists of those series with quality potential," according to VQT's Web site.

Full endorsement

"Ally McBeal," "Any Day Now," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Frasier," "Law & Order," "NYPD Blue," "Once and Again," "The Sopranos," "The Practice," "Sports Night," "The West Wing," "Will & Grace," "The X-Files."

Qualified support

"7th Heaven," "Dharma & Greg," "ER," "Felicity," "Freaks and Geeks," "Friends," "JAG," "Judging Amy," "Law & Order: SVU," "Malcolm in the Middle," "Now and Again," "Oz," "The Pretender," "The Simpsons," "Star Trek: Voyager," "Third Watch."

VQT at a glance

Organization: Viewers for Quality Television.

Cost: Minimum donation of $10 for membership and one-year subscription to The Viewer newsletter, published about 10 times annually. It includes members' comments on TV shows and opportunities to vote on group support of programs.

Address: VQT, Box 195, Fairfax Station, VA 22039.

E-mail: info@vqt.org.

Web site: www.vqt.org.



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